How Salt Bae’s Meme Re-Invigorated the Food Industry
Why experience matters more than food.
Nusret Gökçe, better known by his internet meme alias of Salt Bae, finally opened his long awaited Nusr-Et Steakhouse in New York City in mid-January. The second U.S. location — and 13th worldwide — is the latest attraction in Midtown Manhattan, housed just across the street from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), down the street from the famous Halal Guys on the corner of 53rd and 6th and within walking distance of other New York icons like Carnegie Hall, Central Park and Columbus Circle.
Walking through a metallic silver meat locker door, foodies, restaurant goers, tourists and locals alike are immediately teleported into the opulent world of Salt Bae. A mural of his famous pose adorns the wall next to the bar, which serves everything from Voss water to the most expensive bottles of Armand de Brignac (Ace of Spades). Sturdy wooden tables and personal couches welcome diners with open arms — relaxing and preparing you so that you don’t think about the prices that match the decor. The restaurant isn’t dimly lit by any means but has just enough exposure from the meat hook-shaped overhead lights for customers to photograph the spectacle that they’ve walked in for — and everything in the restaurant is a spectacle.
That’s the real power of Salt Bae, he’s created an environment where everyone is there for the same experience but by sharing it with others, it’s further amplified.
Once situated at the large round table in the center of the back dining area, I was overcome with the feeling of being at a Cirque du Soleil performance. Everything had Salt Bae hashtags and branding — the menu, the steak knives, the dishes, and even a pin that the waiter’s wore. There was always action at the tables around us. Whether it was someone lighting meat on fire with a blowtorch, someone using a double decanter to pour a glass of wine, sparklers burning from a birthday dessert, or the front of house staff performing Salt Bae-esque technique in serving certain dishes, everything left me glued to my camera, mesmerized.
That’s the beauty of Salt Bae — he’s turned fine dining and the traditionally stuffy steakhouse meal curated for power brokers and finance heavyweights into a fun and entertaining event that echoes with the diverse social media generation. For those who aren’t as meme-obsessed, every experience in Nusr-Et harkened back to the flair and attention-commanding essence of Emeril Lagasse and his famous “BAM!” technique on Emeril Live but with even more zest. It was like experiencing hibachi for the first time but instead of a 10 minute show, you had a show from the moment you walked in all the way until you left — it’s the type of entertainment the food industry has seen in the past but has recently been lacking.
When it was my turn to partake in actual eating, chef Gökçe decided to serve us a salad to start, Nusret Spaghetti, Turkish Delight, spinach, mashed potatoes, Shashlik, Ottoman, short ribs and the most amazing baklava I’ve ever eaten for dessert. The Nusret Spaghetti gets its name because you eat the thin slice of meat rolled within a fork all in one bite. The Turkish Delight had a rich taste of charcoal while the Shashlik was the only thing all night concerned with getting any vegetables on the plate, featuring diced onions. The Salt Bae show took center stage on the Ottoman tomahawk steak as he wielded his trusty knife and sliced and diced the meat before blessing it with his world famous salt sprinkle. For those wondering, he did wear gloves, presumably to keep the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene away from ruining the salt flinging fun. Not to be outdone, the short rib was served with the same performance-focused presentation where the meat was slammed onto the table and the bone was seamlessly pulled out to show just how fall-off-the-bone the cook was. Finally, in similar fashion, the baklava showman cut the pistachio filled delicacy in half before twirling the ice cream filling in the air and dropping it from the tip of his knife using Salt Bae’s pose to complete the creation.
Amid all the commotion, everyone at the table was glued to their phones and cameras, snapping and recording away.The camera flash frenzy made it clear that aside from adding to his look, Salt Bae’s sunglasses serve the very practical role of protecting his eyes from hours in front of cameras. What was even more shocking was the fact that people dining at other table’s were also trying to capture the moment, even though some of them already experienced it firsthand. That’s the real power of Salt Bae, he’s created an environment where everyone is there for the same experience but by sharing it with others, it’s infinitely amplified. This bonding that happens so organically during the course of the meal can’t be found anywhere else and it’s why people are willing to pay the ridiculous price tag at least once.
Everything in the restaurant is a spectacle.
In all honesty, the food isn’t much different from the powerhouse steak institutions that have cemented themselves in New York culture like Del Frisco’s, Peter Luger, Keens, Smith & Wollensky or Delmonico’s. However, the experience, entertainment and overall vibe is vastly different than the aforementioned spots. While the wait staff might all be dressed in crisp white button-ups with vest-style aprons, black pants and berets, the see-through glass freezers filled with the finest cuts of meat give off a warm and inviting atmosphere. The aroma of the meat might fill Nusr-Et the same way it would any other steakhouse, but only here can you feel the energy and aura that an epic night is awaiting to unfold.
By no means is dining at Nusr-Et Steakhouse cheap, expect to spend around $300-400 USD per person eating all of the above and drinking just water ($9 USD per bottle) as a couple. But you have to account for the fact that this isn’t any normal restaurant — this is Salt Bae’s restaurant. And with that comes a package of entertainment unrivaled by any culinary institution currently open. You step in knowing that you’ll leave happy, because at the end of the day, Salt Bae has mastered the art of making people feel welcome and eager to share their experience with others. That’s what the modern dining experience is all about in the age of Instagram and instant gratification where people actually suffer from FOMO. Transcending food and understanding the deeper bond that food seeks to bring out in everyone is what Salt Bae has mastered and is why people are continually drawn to repeatedly taking photos and videos of the meme master chef. It’s why a potential IPO and new burger chain should surprise no one and also why I found myself still holding my camera and snapping a photo of him blessing someone else’s steak as I left the restaurant.
60 W. 53rd St.
New York, NY 10019