He wears a simple uniform of tight white T-shirt, tight black pants, and small, round sunglasses, but Salt Bae is instantly recognizable—especially if he’s doing anything that resembles sprinkling salt on meat.
Always tanned, muscular, and mute, Salt Bae, whose real name is Nusret Gökçe, burst onto the Internet-meme scene five years ago and has somehow never left. Photos and videos of his dramatic meat-shaving and salting techniques have made Salt Bae a household name, earned him a staggering social-media following (38 million and counting on Instagram), and allowed him to open restaurants all over the world.
The Turkish chef has just moved to Greece, home of Nusr-Et Mykonos, one of the most popular Salt Bae restaurants. He runs 17 destinations globally, yet it is this windiest and tackiest nouveau-cringe island Gökçe has chosen to settle down on.
Gökçe’s daily routine starts at Nusr-Et with some slow-motion push-ups and a bit of running around carrying a cart full of raw salt, all documented on social media. As the restaurant is still closed, he allows himself to display his unique set of muscles while working out shirtless on various balconies overlooking the Mykonos port.
In the afternoon, Gökçe embarks on a walk around town, entering old ladies’ houses in order to pose with the community. Judging from Instagram, the locals all seem to be highly impressed by him.
Around seven P.M., Gökçe goes back to the shop to chop some asado beef ribs in the kitchen (uploaded to Instagram immediately), then goes out to stand next to a huge poster of himself in the middle of the restaurant for 35 minutes.
It is impossible to book a table at Nusr-Et online or by phone. The only way to get in is to show up early. A Supreme-style line forms outside the restaurant every night, made up of Russian and Georgian fans who buy Salt Bae–branded knives at the merchandise counter on their way in. Then they take turns getting their pictures taken with Gökçe.
After this ritual comes the table-by-table salting. Those who order burgers or meatballs do not get salted—only dishes priced $300 or more, such as kuzu kafes (a full rack of lamb), receive the famous Salt Bae elbow spray. One guest tells me she sees Gökçe’s signature move as shiny glitter “sprinkled from culinary heavens.”
Gökçe barely speaks English. In fact, he rarely speaks at all. The exceptions are the words “wow” and “cappuccino.”
Every guest, be it Eastern European tourists or stars such as Lionel Messi, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Andrea Bocelli (who on August 9 showed up to sing Gökçe a happy birthday), knows the drill.
At the end of the meal, it is obligatory to order the only dessert on the menu, ice-cream baklava, and a cappuccino. After taking the first sip, every guest must say “cappuccino!,” stretching the word out as much as possible (presumably to imitate Gökçe’s Turkish accent). It’s unclear where the idea for this Instagram moment originated or what it means, but it is strangely addictive to watch.
Despite the put-on sex appeal, Gökçe never dates. He retains a certain asexual, undefined charisma that every waiter and chef at his restaurants is required to mimic as best they can.
And he doesn’t touch a phone. Instead, two identical social-media twins follow Gökçe throughout the day and night, ready to edit every encounter into a viral post.
Words of Wisdom
Via translator, Gökçe, 38, whispers his life story to me from across the only uncrowded table at Nusr-Et. He says he grew up poor in Erzurum, in eastern Turkey, and left school in the sixth grade to work as a butcher’s apprentice and, later, in the kitchens of various restaurants.
In early 2017 the restaurant he was working in posted a video on Twitter of Gökçe cutting and salting a slab of meat, and suddenly bored art collectors and Russian oligarchs called, offering to invest in his brand. Somewhere around this time, the name Salt Bae was born.
The business has grown exponentially since, making huge profits everywhere except New York, where the Nusr-Et Steakhouse on West 53rd Street opened to medium-rare acclaim.
The prices rival Cipriani’s, with parties of four often spending a few thousand dollars in a single sitting. In Miami, a dish called “Spaghetti” (the quotes are part of the menu listing) costs $160. The Golden Tomahawk—a bone-in Wagyu rib eye encrusted in 24-karat gold leaf—costs $1,000.
Gökçe, who is estimated to be worth $50 million, is treated like royalty in the U.A.E. In Dubai, he has met Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum for a personal audience. It is rumored that they discussed gold beef tenderloin.
World leaders don’t invite him to cook for them, they just want to hang out. (Gökçe is seldom seen making an entire dish from start to finish anyway—he prefers to cut and salt at different stages of the process, depending on what makes for the best photo op.)
In November of 2019, four of Gökçe’s New York waiters complained publicly of long hours and lack of overtime pay, and that management was taking all of their tips. The waiters were promptly fired. (Before a trial was set to take place, Gökçe reached a settlement and paid them a total of $230,000.)
Since then, Gökçe has focused more on unregulated holiday destinations, where his brand is better understood—and labor laws are much weaker.
In April of this year, the Brooklyn-based artist Logan Hicks sued Gökçe for $5 million, alleging that the chef illegally reproduced a mural he made of Gökçe in his signature salting pose. Sure enough, menus, take-out bags, napkins, ashtrays, and QR codes at Salt Bae restaurants across more than a dozen countries currently feature reproductions of Hicks’s painting.
Hicks confirmed to AIR MAIL that the case is still ongoing. In the meantime, Gökçe has made no moves to remove any of the reproductions.
Dictators, meanwhile, have no problem with Salt Bae. In one instance, Gökçe was criticized by Senator Marco Rubio after Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro received the full “Ottoman salt treatment” (in which Gökçe or another “head shaver” theatrically trims and seasons every dish) at the original Istanbul location.
Rubio called Gökçe a “weirdo” and tweeted the phone number of the Miami restaurant “in case anyone wanted to call.” Today, both the Istanbul and Miami locations remain open and crowded.
In another case, a customer at the Nusr-Et Steakhouse in Abu Dhabi was burned by a fire being lit at their table, part of the $1,300 gold-plated-rib-eye service. The customer ended up accepting free food for life. Nusr-Et’s spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Next up for Salt Bae is his first London spot. Following a mandatory quarantine in a luxurious hotel in central London—having arrived straight from the U.A.E.—Gökçe attended the restaurant’s opening last week.
You can find Nusr-Et London right next to Harrods.
Nimrod Kamer is a London-based writer and the author of The Social Climber’s Handbook: A Shameless Guide