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A Year of Salt Bae, the Internet’s Perfect Chef

What more is there to say? Photo: Instagram; Getty Images; NBC

It’s been a year — at minimum — of tremendous cultural upheaval, not least of which because January 7, 2017, was the day that someone finally became famous for seasoning meat. As in, the actual act of putting salt on meat. Because the internet is excellent at amplifying humans’ stupidest tendencies, and is an unavoidable distraction factory, a Turkish steakhouse operator became the biggest celebrity-chef sensation in the Western World, overnight. Born Nusret Gökçe, the man who would become Salt Bae embodied everything that was right, and wrong, with the world over the last 52 weeks.

Yes, it has been a year since Salt Bae went big. Scroll through the chef’s Instagram posts from the last few years, and you’ll see his style develop. August 2016 was when he really found his groove, posting a video of himself slapping raw meat, smacking it on the grill, and more. It’s also the first time he shows his own personal Blue Steel: the over-elbow salt sprinkle. And it was a video that he posted on January 7, 2017, that would turn him into the king of sexy seasoning.

The video showcases his perfected form: meat-smacking, meat-rubbing, meat-slicing, the down-the-forearm salting technique. Never mind the fact that any cook in the world would be fired for trying this nonsense in a real restaurant, or that Salt Bae himself — sunglasses, tight tee — looks like an extra from a European John Wick knockoff. The man makes it work.

In any other time in human history, Salt Bae’s act might have been the most interesting part of a tourist-trap restaurant that people visit when they’re on vacation. Telling friends they had to see this guy would have required flying to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Istanbul (all cities where Salt Bae operates locations of his Nusr-Et steakhouse chain). Instead, because everyone has Instagram and Twitter on their phones, people instantly made copycat videos, celebrities wore T-shirts with his image, and his signature move worked its way into the end-zone-celebration canon.

You could argue that Salt Bae isn’t the first celebrity chef whose food is entirely beside the point, but he is the first whose fame is built entirely on an extremely limited repertoire of moves designed for virality. For better or worse (which is to say, worse) “food” as a cultural pursuit is, right now, less about how anything tastes and more about how it looks in a photo. Salt Bae’s appeal isn’t about good, or even acceptable, technique — you’re getting salt everywhere, dude! — but he looks hilarious and intense for all the wrong reasons. In other words, he’s the ideal star for a two-minute video.

Far less hilarious is the fact that 2017 would become a year when many actual celebrity chefs and restaurant owners were outed for decades of predatory behavior. The most prominent social-media platforms have also become something of a cesspool. Salt Bae is a goofy distraction from real issues facing not only the restaurant industry, but the world as a whole. If rainbow bagels and galaxy cakes were a person, they’d be Salt Bae.

Unlike those other memes, though, Salt Bae’s fame has had surprising legs (his latest meat video has racked up 10 million views). He approaches his virality with a flamboyant self awareness that’s difficult to dislike. As he tells it, he was born into poverty, started working 13-hour days at 14, and always wanted to run a restaurant. And now he has unprecedented levels of the ultimate currency — engagement. (It’s a Horatio Alger tale for the Twitter age.) In the last year, he’s managed to expand to Miami and, soon, New York, proving that a gimmick can in fact be a business plan. He’s also followed the first rule of fame: keep hammering away while you can.

Salt Bae, who has no chill, showed up on a YouTube channel called Sarah and Melanie Live, cooking with French Montana, a video that also featured Diddy. In another video, the rap mogul introduced “my brother Salt Bae,” who stood silently as Diddy announced that the chef would appear in a new Cîroc commercial. The predictably over-the-top (and great) commercial also includes DJ Khaled–looking hype. Salt Bae himself also appeared at Khaled’s birthday party in early December, and just a couple of weeks ago, he was with Khaled again, teaching Drake how to properly season meat. (In perhaps the most Drake move ever, he awkwardly flubs it and still makes it look pretty good.)

If Salt Bae’s act seems to be wearing thin, know that there is no way that it will slow down. An opening in New York provides a whole new audience to see his sexy salting in person — and you can bet that all of his customers will be shooting videos to post on their feeds.

A Year of Salt Bae, the Internet’s Perfect Chef