I managed to track down viral Internet star Nusret Gökçe for an interview at his steak restaurant in Ankara, Turkey.
How do you like your meat salted? In 2017, there's surely only one answer: the Salt Bae way. Seasoning just isn't seasoning anymore unless it has dusted the bronzed forearm of Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe, Internet sensation and co-owner of steakhouse chain Nusr-et. In a world that is trying to reduce its consumption of dead animals, he appears to be on a one-man mission to make meat sexy again.
For those not yet familiar with Salt Bae (where have you been?), it was the nickname given to Gökçe after his Instagram videos shot to viral fame last month. People all over the world fell for his tight t-shirts, "extra" meat slicing skills, and theatrical manner of salting.
In the short time since then, he has inspired a dance, a cake tribute, become a celebrity favourite (Rihanna and Ben Affleck have both been pictured wearing t-shirts bearing his image), cooked for Leonardo DiCaprio, and teased fans with rumours of a London restaurant opening.
Let's face it, you haven't lived until you've seen the video of him caressing marinade into an animal carcass as though it were a cherished lover, roses protruding from where its anus once was.
Perhaps media savvy, perhaps media shy, Gökçe has managed to remain elusive on details about himself. When I manage to arrange an interview with him at his restaurant in Ankara, the Turkish capital, he gives little away.
"Could I be vegetarian? I sell meat. We eat nothing but meat," Gökçe tells me in English, despite claiming to the Turkish press that he speaks no foreign languages.
And that's about as far as our conversation goes. It seems the "interview" we had organised is actually a chance to witness Gökçe have his picture taken for half an hour, working through a long queue of snake-armed fans.
Grabbing my waist and pulling me in for my own photo, he asks: "Do you have a boyfriend?" People always seem to find the words for that.
Even before he became a meme, Gökçe was well known in Turkey, yet his international success has not at all been bad for business. At the Ankara branch of Nusr-et, high prices attract mostly the local elite—highlighted by the Maserati, Mercedes, and BMW parked outside. But manager Mesut tells me the restaurant treats all customers the same.
"Some people save up for a month to come here," he says.
It's easy to see why. The dishes at Nusr-et are crowd-pleasers: "beef sushi" (rice wrapped in beef and topped with a Parmesan and avocado sauce) is heated with a blowtorch at your table, producing huge dragon-breath puffs of flame. Juicy meat is chopped in front of you à la Salt Bae, the first bite smeared with a wasabi mustard and fed to you by a heavily moustachioed waiter. Facial hair seems to be part of the "concept" at Nusr-et.
For dessert, portions of honey-soaked baklava are split open and filled with goat milk ice cream. Flamboyance is part of the brand and customers appear happy to get their money's worth at least by the number of photos they can snap.
But the meat is what Gökçe wants his restaurant to be known for. The chain's name is a play on the name Nusret, the hyphen highlighting the letters "et," which is the Turkish word for "meat." The restaurants serve only animals raised and processed on the chain's own own farm and slaughterhouse near Istanbul.
"There is a strict selection process," says Mesut. "We have our own animals and Mr Nusret selects only the finest meat. From 5 tonnes, he might choose as little as 100 kilograms to serve in our restaurants. We are looking for the absolute best quality and if we sourced meat elsewhere, maybe it would not be good enough."
There is no word on what happens to the rest of it.
It is Gökçe himself who dreams up the dishes, too. The beef sushi, although not raw because it wouldn't suit a Turkish palate, came from his desire to find a new way to serve meat with rice. After much trial and error over the course of three years, the concept was born.
"We are many hands, but we are one brain," Mesut says, showing that at least one person at Nusr-et is not afraid of giving me a quote.