Salt Bae: The story of his new London restaurant, £630 steak and a trail of lawsuits

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·8-min read
Meme made good: Nusret Gökçe, aka Salt Bae (AFP via Getty Images)
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Bruno Mars has a lot to answer for. One night in 2017, the singer spotted a video on Instagram — an innocuously titled clip, “Ottoman Steak” — and tweeted a screen grab of it: “Annnddd I’m out”, read Mars’s caption.

Beneath this legend was a man in a white shirt and black Lennon-esque glasses, his hand arched as a cobra, a sultry cascade of salt tumbling down his forearm, lips pursed in something between a smirk and a seductive kind of pout. The internet abided: the tweet went viral and Ottoman Steak was watched two-and-a-half million times overnight (today, that figure is just shy of 17 million). It was absolutely ridiculous, but, without doubt, pure theatre. A meme was born — and twitter user @lolalissaa christened him: “So this is #saltbae.”

Is it the most successful meme of all time? Possibly. Now Salt Bae — real name Nusret Gökçe — entertains 39 million Instagram followers, a legion of celebrity admirers, and the well-heeled patrons who willingly spend hundreds of pounds for gold-flaked slabs of meat at his 14 restaurants around the world. The latest is in London, just down from Knightsbridge tube stop.

Meme made good:  Nusret Gökçe, aka Salt Bae (AFP via Getty Images)
Meme made good: Nusret Gökçe, aka Salt Bae (AFP via Getty Images)

Already drawing queues on most evenings, this too has gone viral: one of its first diners posted their £1,812 bill, astonishing and horrifying the internet (although the eagle-eyed might have noticed it was for a table of eight). The salad? £23. Two lots of baklava? £44. How about four Red Bulls, also £44? Or the tomahawk, coming in at a month’s-rent-for-a-nice-double-room-in-a-house-share-worthy £630? And don’t forget the £236.40 service charge. There are £9 Cokes and a burger for £100. Other diners may want the steak covered in 24ct-gold (which, incidentally, has no flavour): that’ll be £790.

Perhaps these are the prices Gökçe, who in 2019 bought Istanbul’s five-star Macka Palas hotel for €50million and is rumoured to have a £38million fortune, expects to pay. Things have come a long way for a man who once knew far more humble surroundings. Born in 1983 into a modest family in the Turkish province of Erzurum, helmed by a mineworker father, Gökçe left school young and at 13 and travelled to Istanbul to train as a butcher. Details of his early years are scant — Gökçe’s apparent aversion to any in-depth interviews plays its part in preserving the enigma — but he says he worked as a butcher and chef for some 15 years, journeying from his homeland to South America and the US, and once told NBC News he always dreamed big: “I was always wishing and wishing to open up a restaurant.”

In 2010, he returned to Istanbul and realised that long-held ambition. Believers in nominative determinism will say that it was only a matter of time — “et” is Turkish for “meat”, hence the punny name of Gökçe’s restaurants, Nusr-et — and other outposts soon sprung up around Turkey.

They were a hit. Both famous Turks and international visitors arrived to sample the extravagantly prepared meats and, you can safely assume, with at least half a hope of glimpsing the charismatic owner behind it all. And so when Bruno Mars pushed him into the bright lights of online stardom, Gökçe didn’t blink.

It’s never been a case of the internet running away with the joke while the person at the centre of it all watches on helplessly. The utterly ripped, cigar-chomping, supposedly 5’8 Gökçe has embraced the meme without reservation and from the outside looking in, this alter-ego seems to have become an all-consuming personal brand, one that has taken the butcher from regional curiosity to one of the planet’s true celebrity chefs; a cult of personality both in the kitchen and in front of the camera.

That cult appeal has travelled him everywhere from Dubai to Mykonos, Beverly Hills to Abu Dhabi. There he is, getting serenaded in front of the grill by Andrea Bocelli, or celebrating Italy’s win at the Euros alongside manager Roberto Mancini. He is, if Instagram is to be believed, friends with Al Pacino to such an extent that he’ll dedicate a Father’s Day post to the actor. David Beckham’s a fan, as are Snoop Dogg, Drake, P Diddy and Leonardo DiCaprio. Rihanna had his face on a t-shirt. And who else would have the nerve to dangle, with at least the faintest dash of eroticism, a sliver of meat into the mouth of Conor McGregor?

Still, despite the reputation, the London restaurant doesn’t seem to have been a celeb magnet in its first few days of business — maybe it’s the fact that it’s taken more than two years to actually open, or maybe it’s that pesky pandemic, but as far as we can tell, Gemma Collins has been the most high-profile diner to have splashed the cash so far. It seems a waste for a place that has two in-house photographers, as well as its own dedicated salt-carrying assistant.

Salt Bae’s ascent to steak-based stardom hasn’t been without turbulence. The opening of his first US restaurant in 2017, based in Miami, was rocked after online sleuths unearthed an old picture of Gökçe impersonating Fidel Castro — a painfully inflammatory revelation in a city known for its hefty Cuban population. The following year, he fell foul of Florida senator Marco Rubio, who called out “this weirdo #SaltBae” on Twitter for hosting Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro at one of his restaurants — a hypocrisy, Rubio argued, while many citizens in the South American country suffered food shortages.

Gökçe’s has also had to fend off a few legal salvos. In 2019, Nusr-et paid out a $230,000 settlement to four former waiters at the chain’s Manhattan restaurant, who took umbrage at the way in which tips were split among staff. In February of this year, the construction of his Dallas restaurant led to a lawsuit for almost a million dollars worth of unpaid bills. In April, he faced allegations of copyright infringement when a Brooklyn artist claimed Gökçe was using his artwork without the correct permissions. April wasn’t a great month: he also had to pay a £4,500 fine for allegedly threatening a former employee back in 2015. Then, in August, he was hit with yet another lawsuit, again revolving around his Manhattan restaurant, this time regarding allegations of unpaid overtime. This was not the first time he’d been in trouble for allegedly dodging overtime pay.

And perhaps some of those £9 Cokes are a desperate attempt to claw back lost cash: last year, Bloomberg reported that the owners of the Nusr-et chain, Dogus Holdings — the same people he bought that hotel from — were forced to delay repayments on the restaurants’ €2.3 billion worth of debt.

On the other hand, it could be that Bae is simply looking to feed his family. In a since-deleted Instagram post, Gökçe posted a picture of him with nine children, with the line: “The man who does not spend time with his family is not a real man”.

It’s a quote from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather — Gökçe, who dubs himself the Saltfather, seems obsessed with the film — and it led to widespread speculation surrounding the butcher’s private life; elsewhere it’s sometimes been said he actually has 13 children. Little is known for fact; there are rumours of model girlfriends but nothing concrete. According to the Sun, the only Bae in Gökçe’s life is meat: “I’m so concentrated on meat that I can’t see a woman or anything. I don’t have any time for a girlfriend.”

Often lost amongst the madness of it all is a discussion of whether the food is actually any good. It depends on who you ask. The New York opening was marred by a series of scathing reviews from the city’s food critics — “over-salted as they are overpriced”, “severely lacking in flavour” — but according to one Jason Statham, who dined at the Beverly Hills outpost, Salt Bae does “the best steak in town”. But then Statham, a man who willingly starred in the Meg, is not always known as a bastion of good taste. It doesn’t seem such a surprise that Donald Trump Jr. loved that critically-mauled New York spot.

Perhaps the dinner isn’t even the main draw. Perhaps this is food simply and purely as entertainment, rather than sustenance. Immersive theatre rather than fine dining. A status symbol, not a sated stomach.

Whatever the case, Salt Bae’s star continues to rise. Reviews in London are thin on the ground and most of us in the capital will have to consult a loan manager before we even consider making a reservation. Until then, we’ll make do with Instagram. Gökçe did — and look where it’s got him.

Nusr-Et Steakhouse London is open now at The Park Tower, 101 Knightsbridge, SW1, nusr-et.com.tr

Read Jimi Famurewa’s review here

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