Linda explores food trends, celebrity chefs, and great places to eat.
Once, restaurants were famous for their food and chefs were celebrities because they were good at cooking (and maybe good-looking). To restaurants, we went to be nourished and amazed by what came out of the kitchen and into our mouths.
— Joshua David Stein, "GQ," January 24, 2018
Who Is Nusret Gökçe?
Nusret Gökçe, popularly known as Salt Bae, is a Turkish chef and restauranteur who rose to internet fame because of the way he prepares and seasons meat.
Nusret was born on August 9, 1983, in Erzurum, Turkey. His father was a simple mineworker, and the Kurdish family of seven struggled financially. Nusret left school in the sixth grade and began working as an apprentice in a butcher shop. At the age of 13, he was working in Turkish steakhouses.
By the time he was 26, Nusret had acquired enough savings to fly to Buenos Aires (where meat is almost a religion). There he learned from some of the finest steakhouse chefs. He returned home one year later (2010) and opened his first restaurant, Nusr-Et, in the Etiler neighborhood of Istanbul with only eight tables and a staff of 10.
Nusret's Big Break
Ferit Şahenk is a Turkish businessman, the CEO of Doğuş Group, and reportedly is one of the richest men in Turkey. One day he entered Nusr-Et and was so impressed that he invested in the man with the magic sprinkling of salt. His financial backing allowed Nusret to expand from eight tables to an empire of 13 restaurants around the globe and more than 600 employees.
But, that's just the beginning.
With a Grain of Salt
On January 7, 2017, Nusret posted "Ottoman Steak," a 36-second video, on Instagram. I hope he had carefully considered his presence and attire on that day because this is now his trademark, the "signature look." His black hair was slicked back, he wore John Lennon dark glasses and a tight-fitting white t-shirt. Wielding a formidable knife, he skillfully sliced a massive steak into thin slices. The final step was a baptism of salt flakes, deftly sprinkled from his fingertips, cascading in a shower down his forearm to the steaming platter below.
Within 48 hours the video had been viewed 2.4 million times. As of this writing, it's been viewed over 16 million times (and counting) and Nusret has more than 20 million Instagram followers.
What to Expect at a Nusr-Et Restaurant
- Food critics have said that a Nusr-Et Restaurant is more like a theme park than a dining experience. Images of Salt Bae are displayed everywhere.
- He works in all of his restaurants; I don't know if there is a planned rotation or if his appearance in this or that part of the globe is random and spontaneous.
- If you happen to be dining at the place he graces with his presence, you can expect a dramatic pose (for photos) with the chef. I don't know if this happens at each table, or only those that happen to order one of the more pricey meat creations.
- The menu is limited and meat-centric. Vegetarians and vegans are well-advised to demur if invited to dine at Nusr-et.
- Prices are insanely expensive.
- Don't ask for tap water—it is not available—one must pay for bottled water (sparkling or "still").
- A simple glass of Sprite is $10.
- Vegetable side dishes (mashed potatoes, spinach, or corn) are $19 for a small serving for one.
- The lowest-priced entrée is the $30 cheeseburger (more on that in a moment).
That Nusr-Et Cheeseburger
I chose to feature the Nusr-Et cheeseburger because it is one of the few items on his menu that you might be able to recreate at home. This is not meant as a reflection on your cooking skills, but merely as an acknowledgment of the types and sizes of meats you might have at your disposal.
As one might expect, Salt Bae's cheeseburger is not your standard beef and cheese hot sandwich. Here's a rough approximation of how to build one on your backyard grill.
Yield: 1 burger
- 1 sesame seed burger bun
- Boosted-up ketchup (a mixture of 2 tablespoons ketchup, 1 teaspoon minced dill pickle, 1 teaspoon mayonnaise)
- Ground beef (25/75 or 30/70 is best)
- 2 American cheese slices (yes, ordinary Velveeta cheese)
- Burger sauce (see explanation below)
- Thinly sliced white onion
- Place the buns on the grill, cut side down for just a few seconds to toast them.
- Stir together the ingredients for the "boosted up" ketchup sauce.
- Grill two smash-burger patties to perfection (still pink in the center).
- After flipping, cover both with cheese slices.
- Once the cheese has begun to melt stack the patties one atop the other.
- Smear burger sauce on the bottom bun (in the UK burger sauce is a jarred condiment—a combination of mayonnaise, ketchup, and yellow mustard).
- Next comes the very thinly sliced onions.
- Top with the two smash burger/cheese patties.
- Spread the boosted-up ketchup on the cut side of the top bun and place that bun on top of the burger patty.
- Slice the burger in half and grill for a few moments, cut sides on the grill, to caramelize the edges.
See the video below for an in-depth explanation.
By the way, this burger, coated with 24-carat gold, was first introduced at Nusr-Et Restaurant in Dubai. The glitzy version costs $100, but in Dubai, price is no object.
What Do the Critics Say?
Does a higher price equate to a higher level of excellence? Here is a sampling of what food critics (people who actually expect superior quality) have to say about the food at Nusr-Et Restaurants:
- "Salt Bae Burger is an insult to our city. Don't eat here, not even as a goof." Scott Lynch, Gothamist.com, 3 March 2020.
- "Salt Bae is as swift with a knife as villainous 'Turk' Solozzo in The Godfather. But his tableside, butcher’s blade attack on a $130, "mustard-marinated Ottoman steak" failed to sufficiently tenderize the shoe-leather-tough bone-in ribeye, which, for extra fun, was loaded with gruesome globs of fat." Steve Cuozzo, NY Post.
- You want to hate the place, to dismiss it. There are better, less expensive, steaks just a few blocks away, dry-aged, and funkier than what you’ll find at Nusr-et. Yet, when Salt Bae shows up to slice and season our steak, it’s embarrassingly thrilling, like watching your favorite cheesy movie. Kate Krader, Bloomberg food editor.
- "Given the stiff competition, I am not convinced there’s room in this segment long-term once the hype has died down, for what is essentially a casual steakhouse. And for that instead of a high 4 out of 5 knives, I am dishing out a 3.5 FooDiva knife rating." Anna Napolitano (The FooDiva), Toronto, Canada.
- "The whole chain is built on the premise that there is a guy who does a thing, and you can Instagram a picture of the guy doing the thing. The thing is putting salt on food in a flamboyant manner. The guy is Nusret Gökçe, nicknamed Salt Bae, a Turkish chef and butcher who became a meme for his salting technique and has been cashing in ever since. With 18 locations and only one guy, there is at best a 5.6% chance you will see the guy do the thing. If I sound annoyed, then I’m getting my point across." Brian Reinhart, Dallas Observer.
The Final Word
And this from Joshua David Stein of GQ:
As Salt Bae knows, we aren’t there for the meat. All flesh become worms, but celebrity live longer, and a geotag forever. We approach this glistering Midtown temple of meat in the hope that some of Gökçe’s immortality might land on us, or at least our Instagram accounts. Drunk on overpriced cocktails and overpriced dreams, we wait for our names to be called. But promises of immortality are like $130 steaks. They must be taken with a grain of salt.
© 2021 Linda Lum