When you’re eating a delicious meal at a restaurant, do you ever stop to think about who made your dish, the way it was prepared or what efforts were needed to get it on the table? Oftentimes, we tend to get distracted by the tantalizing plate in front of us instead of focusing on the people who made it possible. However, the entire experience changes when celebrity status and internet fame join the mix. Social media’s beloved Salt Bae is back in the spotlight, but this time, the salt outweighs the sweet in the chef.
Nusret Gokce is a Turkish chef-turned-internet-celebrity whose rich tastes lure in a luxurious audience. After a video of him flamboyantly salting meat went viral on Instagram in 2017, fans across the web have fallen in love with the chef. To quote from GQ on Salt Bae’s success, “It seems that sprinkling rock salt down your arm from a height really does sell.” The internet was quick to advertise their affections by crowning him the “#saltbae,” “bae” being an acronym for “before anyone else.” In no time at all, Salt Bae and his drool-worthy cooking rose to the center of internet conversation; people dressed up in Salt Bae costumes for Halloween and created memes of his signature pose.
Despite all the laughs aimed at Gokce’s eccentric cooking, the Salt Bae title ultimately brought his craft into the limelight. The original 36-second video sparked a domino effect, and the Turkish butcher now has over 40 million Instagram followers and serves meals to celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and DJ Khaled. With the luxury of eating his gold-laden meats combined with the “performance” that sparked his fame, the Salt Bae hits all the sweet spots of what makes fancy food so desirable. Even if only select fans can afford the Salt Bae signature dishes, their enthusiasm for Gokce’s extravagant food preparation has made his lifestyle much more comfortable. As a Wall Street Journal video remarked, “The exposure has been good for Gokce’s wallet.” Though Gokce was a chef long before he was the Salt Bae of Instagram, the hashtag fame drew a crowd to his restaurant pursuits. Since acquiring the Salt Bae title, Gokce has opened restaurants around the world, including the latest source of his controversies: London’s Nusr-Et.
Trouble arose in plate paradise when an article from the New York Post made its rounds through the web. From Instagram and Twitter to even a niche Reddit thread, everyone bickered about “Salt Bae’s London restaurant with $1,975 steak hiring chef — for $16 an hour.” The headline concerns Salt Bae’s recent ad looking for a chef de partie — more commonly known as a line cook — to fit the bill of his stellar London establishment. Knowing the lavish reputation of Salt Bae’s work, especially regarding his upscale meat preparation and theatrical presentation, the position would appeal to those who want to enter the fine dining scene.
However, pitching a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity against that of a measly $16 an hour salary botched the chef de partie dream. The site Dlisted mocked the “staggering generosity” of the announcement: “For the low low pay of $16 an hour, you can cook alongside your favorite internet chef and serve meals that are worth four paychecks to the insanely wealthy.” With a restaurant that can afford to serve lush cuts of meat at lofty prices, one would assume that this is more than enough to provide for the people who serve the food in the first place.
In an article written by The Daily Mail UK, the hourly wage and tips for the London position are said to be equal to “the price of mashed potatoes or sweet corn at the newly opened upscale eatery.” Salt Bae’s job ad highlights how much worth — or lack thereof — is placed on those who work behind the scenes to churn out these fancy dishes. One enthusiastic Twitter post, in response to the initial tabloid, sparked the conversation on pay with the phrase, “nO oNe wAnTs tO wOrk.”
The chaotic array of capital and lowercase letters conveys sarcasm through text, playing off the current discussion of why people “don’t want to work” in today’s world. Underneath the teasing, the caveat is that people want to work, yet they want their efforts reflected in the compensation they receive from their jobs. While discussion around working the “ideal” job will remain, the tweet shines a light on the obvious gaps that encourage a negative perspective on the service industry.
It’s safe to assume that service roles — with a heavy emphasis on food service — are often neglected in conversations about “valuable” jobs. For example, in a 2019 USA Today article, the “Worst Jobs in America” at the time of publication included multiple jobs in the service industry. As far as numbers are considered, occupations such as chefs and food service workers reside among the least financially stable positions. However, the emotional toll of the labor and their contributions to entire franchises cannot be disregarded. The food servers that put meals on the table for willing customers should be celebrated more than they currently are; despite this hope for change, people only believe in the worth of chefs when they have celebrity or media fame.
Over the last few years, the shift in the service industry has drastically changed what kind of working environment these young chefs can thrive in. As USA Today put it, the service industry setbacks have been “a gut punch to businesses that depend on social gatherings — restaurants, cinemas, theaters, hotels, airlines, gyms, shopping centers.” For better or for worse, the fluctuation between relative job stability and job insecurity has revealed the importance of food service workers to the hospitality industry. When line cooks can impact the service industry on such a large scale, shouldn’t they be eligible for opportunities to rise to chef status, or to receive the job security that reflects the importance of the work they do? In the case of the Salt Bae hiring controversy, isn’t it right to assume that he should provide for the workers that help maintain his luxury status?
Concern for Salt Bae’s workers grows when one remembers that Gokce’s fame was literally built off support from the internet community. One would think that Salt Bae would be more courteous to the budding chefs in the same position as he once was, but that is unfortunately not the case. Instead, the glorious benefits of working alongside the infamous Salt Bae seems to be Gokce’s skirting around the subpar pay. Even if we can turn this wage conversation around, it’s the juxtaposition between a $16/hour server and a four-figured piece of meat that put Salt Bae under fire.
There’s also nothing limiting his funds: LADbible reported that as of 2021, Salt Bae is worth $60 million. He gained more fame in four years than most can dream of, so what motivates him to post a starting salary of $16 an hour for his own job ad? Even though we can’t tell this internet icon what to do, it’s disappointing to watch those who can “pay it forward” choose not to. Maybe he lacks awareness, or perhaps some other obstacle that is not disclosed to the public prevents him from offering more; the facts remain that Salt Bae just needs a new worker, and this is what he’s willing to dish out for them.
What can we, as the internet audience watching the situation unfold, do with all this dismay for something we can’t control? At the end of the day, Salt Bae’s actions are a clear reminder that celebrities are going to do what they want to do, regardless of how far internet commentary can go. Although social media will forever be Salt Bae’s claim to fame, his Instagram audience can’t do much more than place him on that pedestal.
Salt Bae also questions how far a meme can stray from comedy. With Gokce’s ability to build an entire brand and restaurant chain by sharing his flashy cooking online, it’s scary how fast the internet can change lives. From salting meat one moment to serving golden steak to a Vietnamese prime minister the next, the Salt Bae image is equally complicated and eye-opening. As Dlisted scoffed, “We need to let memes die, people. It’s not good for us.” The nature of social media celebrities favors the one-off theatrics that spark a laugh or a smile, but it doesn’t leave enough room to showcase other potential talents for the long term. If Salt Bae is continually put “before anyone else,” when will others get a turn to bring their skills to the table?
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