When Dominique Ansel unleashed the Cronut at his Soho bakery in 2013, he unwittingly started a revolution. Word of the mash-up dessert spread like wildfire, leading both tourists and locals alike to flock to the shop. Lines formed down the block hours before it opened. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds are still flooded with images of the coveted pastry. Ansel, it seemed, had unearthed a tipping point in modern foodie culture. Powered by a newfound ubiquity of high-quality smartphone cameras, consumers of all stripes started making purchases driven disproportionately by the goal of social media booms.
In the five years since, businesses releasing Instagram-friendly dishes, products and experiences have become commonplace, and many of them have been excellent. The chief design goal behind Refinery29’s delightful 29Rooms exhibit in Williamsburg last year was to be Instagrammable. Southeast Asian ice cream creators like Wowfulls and Taiyaki have enjoyed huge successes in New York City due to their over-the-top imagery that plays so well on social media (their treats are also quite tasty). If a business can create a product that can make users stop scrolling through their feeds and say “wow,” it can reap huge sums of cash. But buzz is not a flavor. And many of the city’s best dishes don’t have Cronut-level followings.
Obviously, not everything that goes viral is actually worthwhile. Last summer, Pop Pasta made waves for hawking Spaghetti Donuts at Smorgasburg. The dish was an abomination to Italian food everywhere and tasted like something out of a can stored in a bomb shelter. Before that, it was the Rainbow Bagel, which was nothing more than a food dye–ridden hunk of mediocre bread. We’ve seen crappy unicorn-inspired lattes and restaurants that have no draw beyond decorating their interiors in millennial pink. I’m not sure that I’ve ever witnessed anyone actually consume a milkshake from Black Tap, but I’ve seen a countless number of my peers post photos of the monstrous creations. These spots have mastered one of the greatest commercial hoodwinks of the 21st century: They’ve convinced customers that buying stupid food is a worthwhile or even smart way to gain social media likes, impressions and elusive influence.
A reckoning has been long overdue. And now it is here.
This year, New York welcomed the grand sultan of suckers: Salt Bae. The Turkish chef, formally known as Nusret Gökçe, has amassed nearly 11 million followers on Instagram (or a third of NASA’s following). His popularity primarily originates from a single video from 2017 in which he sensually cuts a steak before sprinkling a generous portion of salt from eye level, rolling along his forearm before hitting the meat. The 35-second clip now has more than 16 million views and turned the once obscure Middle Eastern chef into a veritable sensation. His popularity has allowed him to open 13 restaurants across the world, including one in midtown in January, Nusr-Et. The establishment may very well be the greatest con to be pulled off in New York City since Boss Tweed built his political machine in the 19th century.
The steaks at Nusr-Et are as over-salted as they are overpriced (we’re talking hundreds of dollars a plate). The restaurant’s menu is not published fully online, and customers have no idea how much they’re poised to spend until they sit down at their table. During the first few weeks after it opened, patrons weren’t going to the restaurant for the expensive plates—they were going to see Salt Bae imitate that original viral video right before their eyes. He turned his online show, which was free for all on Instagram, into an in-person circus that costs attendees an arm and a leg per seat. The food is bad. The experience of Salt Bae emphatically cutting a steak barehanded in front of you is somehow sexual and certainly perturbing. For some, spending that much money for an Instagram post is worth it. But for most New Yorkers, it’s more like throwing a rent check out the window.
Photograph: Clayton Guse
Following my second visit to Nusr-Et (yes, I’m a repeat customer because, hello, we live in a golden age of gluttony for punishment), one thing became painfully clear: Salt Bae is the bizarro Ansel. If the French chef has saved New Yorkers’ palates from bland, unimpressive desserts like Superman, his Turkish counterpart fumbles around clumsily in an attempt to foil his accomplishments. Ansel inspires hope in anyone who is trying to build buzz around worthwhile products. When people began reselling marked-up Cronuts on Craigslist shortly after their debut, Ansel responded smartly by creating an also-viral frozen s’more treat, which melts before anyone can try and turn it for a profit. When Salt Bae got criticized for handling meat with his bare hands, he responded by donning a pair of burglar-esque black gloves. Ansel rose to prominence as the executive pastry chef at Daniel when the restaurant received three Michelin stars, and he sells desserts that are both beautiful and delicious. Salt Bae is simply selling bullshit. He’s co-opted a self-promoting meme into something that might as well be a bank heist.
Considering that Salt Bae has more than a dozen restaurants across the world, his presence in his midtown dining room will not be permanent (I am half-convinced that Salt Bae has several body doubles but currently have no proof to this claim). In a lousy effort to maintain the Insta-hype at Nusr-Et long after the namesake chef moves onto his next venture, he’s added in multiple other “Baes” to the restaurant. There’s Sushi Bae, who cooks four pieces of “beef sushi” tableside with a blowtorch for $20. There’s Wine Bae, who for some reason pours wine through an aerator and into a decanter. There’s Baklava Bae, who makes choo-choo noises as he dramatically heaps a slice of the dessert onto patrons’ plates. And then there’s Rib Bae, a man by the name of Rahmr who seems to be Salt Bae’s heir apparent. This character salts a massive hunk of short rib and offers to hold one of the bones in diners’ mouths for that oh-so valuable selfie.
Photograph: Clayton Guse
Nusr-Et isn’t worthy of New York City’s restaurant scene, but it’s what we deserve. We all helped create this monster. We gave our data to Facebook for free so that its engineers could spoon-feed us “meaningful interactions.” We’ve spent years posting photos of stereotypical views, foods and events in NYC on Instagram, foaming at the mouth for the satisfaction of a few extra likes. In an effort to connect with each other, we’ve all become more basic and less challenging.
What we’re left with is a world where a truly terrible steakhouse can thrive in a coveted Manhattan location, and it needs to be stopped. If we want to keep calling New York the greatest city in the world, it’s high time we stop wasting it on terrible, uninspiring people and products. Put your time and money into the Ansels of the world, dear New Yorkers, and let the Salt Baes collapse into the sodium-filled pits where they belong.
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