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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Salt Bae’s Next Great Act? Endless Content

It was Salt Bae’s 14th restaurant, and it wasn’t even the first to serve a gold-wrapped steak. When Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe opened the doors to his London eatery Nusr-Et in September after two years of delays, some headlines were to be expected—the man is a living meme, after all, famous for flamboyantly sprinkling salt down his elbow onto his steaks. It’s the kind of story that local food columnists find hard to resist: silly dishes for silly prices topped off with silly salt. But could anyone have anticipated that in the six weeks that followed, Gökçe would inspire 774 separate headlines across the world? The man, the meme, had reached another level.

On October 28, a month after his London restaurant opened, 57 months after he first went viral, and 37 months after he first covered a steak in edible gold, a video of Salt Bae posted to Twitter accumulated 1.7 million views. According to a 2018 investigation by The Outline, the average meme has a lifespan of just four months. Salt Bae is different—not because his fame isn’t a fluke (it is) but because he’s turned it into a full-on dining experience, one built to serve content. Now, Gökçe isn’t just feeding wealthy clientele, he’s feeding an entire Salt Bae industrial complex.

In the last week alone, 149 articles were written about Salt Bae across the web. For context, this was the same week McDonald’s launched its first vegan burger, the McPlant, in the UK, a move that generated a scant 48 articles. Meanwhile, headlines such as, “Salt Bae looks unrecognisable in friend's pre-fame photo” and “This is not a drill: Salt Bae is in the park feeding pigeons” apparently bring in the clicks. British tabloid The Sun even recently emblazoned one article with a new blue logo reading “SALT BAE LATEST”; it also has its own Salt Bae tag, “Unbaelievable.”

When Gökçe opened his first American restaurant in Miami in November 2017, it prompted little more than a few local stories. When the New York Nusr-Et opened a few months later, proximity to the American media meant the reaction was stronger, provoking everything from a New York Times review to a New York Post takedown. But when Luke Evans talked about the restaurant on The Late Late Show with James Corden that January, the resulting YouTube clip didn’t even generate a quarter of a million views. What is it about the London restaurant that tipped the world over the edge? And why exactly is Salt Bae now proving to be such a bottomless well of content?

Edible gold is many things: literally and metaphorically tasteless. Yet an edible-gold-wrapped steak is also a mirror—hold it up to a man and he will see himself within.

That’s a fancy way of saying: To the British, nothing cuts deeper than class. For complex historical reasons, Britain is a nation obsessed with where people fit in real and imagined social hierarchies, to the point where there’s a pervading myth that anywhere south of Watford is riddled with “the metropolitan elite.” This is possibly why local papers nearly 200 miles from London are having a field day with Salt Bae content, writing stories such as, “Huddersfield Instagram O'Donnell sisters splashed out on £630 steak at Salt Bae's London restaurant.”

A gold wrapped steak, then, can be neatly used as a dividing line between Us and Them. On September 26, when someone tweeted a receipt showing that someone else had seemingly spent $2,400 in the restaurant, the internet fell into a frenzy, with the tweet gaining nearly 25,000 likes (the receipt’s veracity has never been confirmed). Since then, numerous other (possibly-fake-but-no-one-seems-to-care) Nusr-Et receipts have generated headlines; one claimed to show a $49,000 bill.

The whole thing is a winning formula for clicks, almost as profitable as a $67 cappuccino.

Yet Salt Bae doesn’t just provide content for journalists; his whole schtick is about creating content for his clientele. For the last few weeks, if you ordered a steak at Salt Bae’s London restaurant, it came with a big serving of the man himself, who would dramatically sprinkle salt in front of you and even dangle strips of meat directly into your mouth. If a customer goes to Salt Bae’s restaurant and doesn’t film him slicing their steak, did it even get sliced?

“He is always willing to put on a show for the camera,” says Makiez Arghandewal, a 24-year-old refugee resettlement volunteer from San Francisco who has been to Salt Bae’s Istanbul restaurant “at least a dozen times.” Arghandewal once stayed in the same hotel as Salt Bae and interrupted his gym session to film a video. “He was more than happy to,” she explains. “He is really patient and understands people’s needs for social media content.”

Arghandewal has a TikTok account, @kieeezzy, on which she has accumulated 37,700 followers by posting 31 videos, seven of which feature Salt Bae. Her most popular video of all—a clip of Salt Bae (doing what else but) slicing a gold steak—has 13.4 million views, while her non-Salt Bae videos generate as little as 600. “Salt Bae definitely attracts crowds,” Arghandewal says. “He is social media gold.”

Arghandewal describes Nusr-Et Istanbul as having “a very hip vibe” with staff who “understood most people were there to take pictures of the food.” The second time she visited, the waiter noticed she was in the bathroom when the first course was brought out, so he brought out a second appetizer and assembled and sliced it in front of her so she could get a video.

The entire thing, then, was built with social media in mind—the natural next step to restaurants decorated for the extremely online, where menus are only available via QR code. Salt Bae, who has 39.8 million followers on Instagram and owes his international notoriety to social media, clearly understands the power of the internet (though it might be a stretch to call him a guru, given his latest schtick is posting videos of himself saying “Cappuccino” in a long drawn out way). This is a man who screenshots and shares every headline about him on his Instagram Stories, even ones that are critical about how much he pays his employees. Salt Bae, it seems, knows that all publicity is good publicity.

Salt Bae is leaving London on November 7 to open his latest restaurant in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. By traveling around the world and capturing the attention of local diners and reporters, Salt Bae’s hype seems to be self-perpetuating. With each new city, the meme machine rolls on. Those who dine at Nusr-Et branches across the globe film endless videos in the hope that it says something about them; those who mock the videos on social media or in newspapers think it says something about them, too. It’s a rivalry between the salt of the earth and the (Salt Bae of the) elite: A neat, almost cartoonish class story which helps people define who they are by who they aren’t. It’s a culture war, yes, but one mercilessly free of any -isms. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who spent what when—it’s just the latest iteration of an argument that’s been going on for hundreds of years. There’s an innocence to getting angry about expensive steaks; there’s a simplicity to the story that’s (medium) rare in our current internet age. The steaks are gold, sure, but the stakes aren’t real.

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