You might never have heard the name Nusret Gökçe. You might even have dined at one of the Turkish restaurateur's steakhouses in the UAE, known as Nusr-Et. You might not recognise him without his trademark white V-neck tee, round sunglasses or slicked-back black mane. But you will definitely have heard of Salt Bae, for they are one and the same – and the man is back in the headlines, but this time for all the wrong reasons.
After he became an internet sensation at the beginning of last year, which stemmed from a video posted on his Dubai restaurant's Twitter page that went viral (16 million views on Instagram and counting), Salt Bae made it known he intended to open a new steakhouse – his 13th – in New York. And now the eatery, on West 53rd Street, which opened its doors last month, is getting a battering at the hands of New York's famously brutal food critics. Salt Bae, for all the queues of selfie-seekers, now has a public-relations disaster on his hands.
Anywhere where a single steak can cost US$275 (Dh1,010) (plus tax, plus 18 per cent service charge) and a small serving of spaghetti beef costs $70 (plus, plus), should rightly come in for fierce criticism if the food is anything less than perfect. And now that the reviews are starting to come in, it appears that perfection has, so far at least, proved rather elusive.
In New York, foodies are used to paying handsomely for a high-class night out, but certain things are not forgiven by those who have visited so far – one of them is refusing to serve tap water and charging $9 (plus, plus) for a bottle of Voss. Another would be charging $30 (plus, plus) for a serving of fries that arrives at the table 20 minutes before the steak does, turning-cold in the meantime.
"Public rip-off No 1," said the New York Post. "My terrible meal at Salt Bae's NYC restaurant cost $1,400," grumbled The Observer. "A train wreck of a restaurant," claimed Bloomberg Pursuits.
And then there's the potential matter of breaching New York's strict food-hygiene rules. Salt Bae's signature move – the one that got him famous via millions of retweeted and reposted memes – involves him sprinkling seasoning onto meat in a flamboyant, oft-imitated style, by letting it fall down his forearm onto the food from his bare hand, while attempting to pose like a victorious, shade-wearing matador.
And bare hands are expressly forbidden by legislators when it comes to handling any foodstuffs, with article 81 of the city's Health Code stating that: "Convenient and suitable utensils, disposable food-grade gloves, wax paper or an equivalent barrier shall be provided and used to prepare or serve food to eliminate bare hand contact and prevent contamination."
This must have been brought to the man's attention, because when The New York Times' food critic (and social-media fanatic) Pete Wells attended, both of Salt Bae's hands were encased in latex gloves. Wells, like other reviewers, found much to criticise with the food, saying that the steak was "rare in patches and medium-rare in others", and that "the mashed potatoes were awful". But like so many others, Wells was there to see Salt Bae, snap a photo with him and post it online. And, in that, Gökçe, a married father of nine, trained butcher and social-media superstar, truly delivered.
Soon, though, he may not be in New York to sate the desires of the selfie armies. He will have gone home, perhaps to plan his next venture and maybe apply some lotion after being burnt by some of those scathing reviews. An internet sensation can only trade on a famous move for so long before it goes stale, no matter how many white crystals are sprinkled down their forearm.