The Turkish restaurateur Nusret Gökçe was relatively unknown when a 2017 video captured him cocking his hand back and sprinkling salt on a piece of meat with flamboyant, flamenco flair. Since then, “Salt Bae,” as he’s known, has used his viral popularity to open 30 restaurants around the world, some of which feature his slightly ludicrous “Golden Tomahawk,” a $1,000 steak encrusted in 24-karat gold.
Salt Bae’s success, a result of using Internet fame to launch brick-and-mortar restaurants, is now being replicated by a growing class of food-based content creators. Increasingly, “chefluencers”—TikTok, YouTube, or Instagram stars whose recipes have been viewed billions of times online—are finding opportunities to translate social-media clout into real-life storefronts.
In July of last year, the American influencer Dylan Lemay, 25, who collected 11 million followers on TikTok for his agility at throwing ice cream, opened Catch’N Ice Cream on Bleecker Street, in New York, after raising $1.5 million in pre-launch seed funding. The ice-cream shop maintains its connection with its maker by having employees throw signature balls of ice cream at customers, who “catch” them in bowls.
Similarly, Tina Choi, a 25-year-old South Korean influencer who has 3.5 million subscribers on YouTube, rose to prominence for cooking Korean food on her channel. She has since gone on to launch Mija Seoul, a restaurant in Seoul that focuses on local produce and traditional liquor pairings.
All’Antico Vinaio, a Florentine panini shop whose sandwiches seem calibrated for the close-up shot, meanwhile, has leveraged its Instagram magnetism to expand into New York and Los Angeles, with help from MasterChef judge Joe Bastianich. Impossibly long lines snake outside all his storefronts, despite panini costing upward of $12 each.
Even those who have been canceled have managed to bounce back. Alison Roman, who first went viral on Instagram and departed NYT Cooking in 2020—she now runs a successful YouTube cooking series—opened a corner store and provisions shop this month in upstate New York.
Impossibly long lines snake outside all his storefronts, despite panini costing upward of $12 each.
Going viral for food-content creation is a full-time job. Kevin Lee, known online as @chefboylee, has 1.2 million followers on TikTok. Lee, 36, formerly worked as a chef at the Michelin-starred restaurants Daniel and Marea, in New York City. During the pandemic, Lee played around with TikTok as a form of distraction—until his cooking videos of classic dishes, such as ratatouille and borscht, started blowing up on the platform. Soon, Lee was pouring his life into growing his brand.
“I’m a super-perfectionist,” says Lee, who is now a full-time influencer based in Los Angeles. “When I film, it takes anywhere from four to eight hours. Some recipes can take three days because things need to chill overnight. Editing itself takes 10 hours. There’s hours of footage that needs to be condensed down into 60 seconds.”
Lee’s online presence has since translated into deals with brands such as Suntory Whisky, and Brooklyn Beckham and Courteney Cox have dropped by as guest stars in his videos. A few months ago, Lee was flown out to East Hampton to cater a 23-year-old’s birthday party; later, he did a pop-up collaboration with the Michelin Guide restaurant Kinn, in L.A.’s Koreatown.
Lee thinks it makes sense that restaurant investors would go after the chefluencer set. “They already have a following. There’s already buzz around the creator,” he says. “If they can just get a fraction of those followers coming in, it’s less risky to invest in something like that.”
But if a chefluencer hasn’t tested his or her recipes on a general audience, will the restaurant’s food be any good?
I recently journeyed out to Di Di, a hot-ticket Vietnamese-fusion restaurant from TikTok star Tue Nguyen in Los Angeles’s West Hollywood neighborhood. Inside, the place was packed with hip, young professionals enjoying tiki-themed cocktails, phones snapping away at both the tropical décor and the food.
I went with a friend of mine who grew up in the Vietnamese-restaurant world. We ordered the bò kho ($31), a braised-beef-stew dish that ended up being dry, bland, and salty. (A request for an additional slice of bread to help cut the salt cost us $6.)
The centerpiece of the night was Kevin’s Pho, a $65 take on the classic Vietnamese noodle soup. The pho was advertised as featuring expensive cuts of meat (Wagyu, short rib, and bone marrow), but when the dish came, we were shocked by the stingy portions (one slice of Wagyu per bowl) and the daikon-forward broth. It was perhaps one of the most mediocre pho broths we’d ever encountered. “Who is Kevin? I need to have a word with him,” my friend said.
Our unfortunate experience at Di Di wasn’t an anomaly—on Yelp, reviewers called Salt Bae’s Nusr-Et steak house in Beverly Hills “gimmicky at best” and “all about the hype.” Others complained of Lemay’s Catch’N Ice Cream: “$10 to have someone throw a scoop of ice cream at you?” and “There’s ice cream smeared across the floor.” Doughbrik’s Pizza, a pizza spot on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard opened by the controversial YouTube star David Dobrik (who has 17.8 million subscribers), has a review that reads, “This is dog water. Mid ass pizza.”
When dishes are designed to be photogenic, taste often falls by the wayside. But in our photo-saturated age, perhaps diners don’t care. Based on how many followers some of these chefs have, and the long lines formed at their establishments, virality may be enough to buoy a middling menu.
“I think a lot of people who do this to open a restaurant have never worked in a restaurant to understand how tough it is,” says Lee, who has no interest in using his brand to get into the brick-and-mortar business. Working from home as a chefluencer means being paid more than working in a restaurant kitchen and not getting burned out. Plus, Lee and his videographer get to enjoy his creations and the subsequent leftovers for the rest of the week.
Like Lee, there are food-content creators out there who are committed to great taste. My recent attempt at making one chefluencer’s spicy-tofu recipe was a hit at a dinner party. And in general, food-based videos can be a democratic educational tool for those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to Michelin chefs or professional cooks.
Just beware of anyone peddling a $65 pho in a space designed for the ’Gram.
Lynn Q. Yu is an Editor at Large at AIR MAIL