Salt Bae’s Meteoric Rise And The Incredible Power Of Viral Food

Nusret Gökçe has pulled off a rare feat for a chef: He’s going international. He’s got several steakhouses in Istanbul, has opened his doors in the United Arab Emirates and Dubai, and is finally making a jump to American shores, building a steakhouse in Miami and staffing up for his arrival at NYC.

Gökçe been a chef to watch for years, but his breakthrough came at a bit of a price. Most Americans can’t pronounce Nusret Gökçe, but they know him, as you’ve probably guessed, as Salt Bae. The meme of 2017. The sexiest chef ever to slice a steak.

As a chef, Gökçe finds himself in a bizarre position: Known to millions but only as a collection of frames or even as a flat image. Nobody aside from art history majors can tell you who Joseph Ducreux is, but you’ve probably seen the meme the internet turned his self-portrait into. Antoine Dodson became a charting musician thanks to YouTube and some autotune software. But Gökçe’s double-edged sword is that he got massively internet-famous for doing his regular, real-live job. He’s a cook and he got famous for cooking — just not thanks to anyone who’d tasted his food.

To be fair, Gökçe knows marketing as well as fine dining. He had a substantial Instagram following before the Salt Bae video took off, thanks to his glamorous travel and propensity for going shirtless, and — once the meme took off — he leaned in. But the proof is on the plate, and if you dig up reviews from before he went viral, you find a detail-focused chef combining the foods of his past with current food trends. His restaurants are high-end steakhouses, with all that entails, and it seems likely if he had never posted the Salt Bae video, his star would still be steadily rising.

But it’s worth considering the fate of another human meme, Guy Fieri. Fieri had a similarly meteoric rise, but thanks to his frosted tips and silkscreened shirts, not to mention his near-relentless appearances on the Food Network, he was the butt of the internet’s contempt for years. Fieri took their abuse with seeming good humor, but admittedly recently that he’d been “demoralized” by being called a douchebag for, really, no good reason at all. There is, perhaps, a reason Shane Torres’ impassioned pitch that Fieri deserves praise, not contempt, has gone so wide, and Fieri himself is getting reconsidered as a person, if not a chef.

Gökçe may face something of the same problem. There may be a Ken Bone-backlash in his future. The reality is, he’s Salt Bae now, and to some extent, he’ll be Salt Bae forever — a pretty face there to please the looky-loos for a brief moment, people who just want to see him salt the meat, and don’t care what else went into making it. Their money will spend, of course, but one has to wonder what diners only there to gawk think they’re buying.

Hopefully they’ll appreciate the chef’s craft, not just his stylish seasoning.

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