It’s nearly impossible to get a reservation at chef-restaurateur Nusret Gökçe’s new Nusr-Et steakhouse in New York City. Better known around the world by the saline moniker “Salt Bae,” Gökçe is collecting headlines, leaving dining critics in the dust, and packing his newest restaurant full of fans, thanks to his business acumen and the buzz only successful social media positioning can bring. Of course, diners are not really coming for the steak; it’s probably safer to assume they’re drawn to the theatrics of seasoning.
No chef will deny that seasoning is crucial to finishing a dish, but few have turned the mundane task into entertainment like Salt Bae. Over the past year, he’s become one of the internet’s hottest memes. YouTube and Instagram are flooded with mimics and copycats; on the Late Late Show, host James Corden called Salt Bae’s work “the most erotic thing I’ve ever seen.” Even Leo DiCaprio made time to visit the suave chef at his restaurant in Dubai.
Salt Bae is the world’s newest celebrity chef, but with his internet fame, Gökçe has lost some of the credibility he earned while building his steakhouse empire in Turkey. What most of Gökçe’s fans and foes are missing is that, in spite of the distracting show (and ignoring the fickle whims of the Department of Health), Salt Bae’s salting technique is actually on point.
Chefs periodically get on a soapbox about the importance of proper salting. Reiterating the techniques he learned in France, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Napa Valley — still a landmark restaurant since the chef took it over in 1994 — preached seasoning with salt as a tenant to great cooking. In The French Laundry Cookbook, published in 1999, Keller wrote that “the ability to salt food properly is the single most important skill in cooking... Without it, the flavor of meats and vegetables and fruits is a little flat, dead, fade as they say in France — insipid. Salt opens up flavors, makes them sparkle.”
At the time, Keller’s assertion contradicted the prevailing nutritional advice of the day that recommended limiting salt intake. Several studies tied excess salt consumption to hypertension and other heart diseases. Nutritionists weren’t wrong, per se — the World Health Organization still advises against over salting — but some cooks and diners went too far, cutting too much salt from their meals, yielding a lot of bland food.
Chef and author Samin Nosrat also addresses this misconception in her 2017 best-seller Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. “Unless you’ve been specifically told by your doctor to limit your salt consumption, you can relax about your sodium intake,” she writes. “Anything you cook for yourself at home is more nutritious, and lower in sodium, than processed, prepared, or restaurant food.” But that still comes with a caveat that encourages proper technique: “Does this mean you should simply use more salt? No. It means use salt better. Add it in the right amount, at the right time, in the right form.”
At his New York City restaurant, Gökçe pulls off his signature move using Maldon flakes. “He says salt is essential because it brings out flavor,” a spokesperson told Eater, “especially when finishing off meat.” Nusr-Et currently goes through at least five large buckets of pricey — but delicious — Maldon per week.
Maldon Salt was established in the UK in 1882. In 1996, four years before Keller published his seminal cookbook, chef Ruth Rogers of the UK’s much-loved River Cafe wrote in her cookbook that, for serious cooks, it was the only salt:
As there are so few ingredients involved in most of the sauces, and rarely any cooking, the quality of the ingredients is essential. The olive oil must be the best extra virgin, the salt must be Maldon sea salt, the parsley must be flat leaf, the anchovies must be salted.”
But the product was relatively unknown to American cooks until a few years ago, when the British company hired a marketing manager from global liquor brand Diageo, according to Bon Appétit. Today, the family-owned company produces 2,755 tons of salt flakes a year, selling it stateside at Whole Foods, on Amazon, and at pretty much every decent grocery store across America. Even Keller started selling Maldon some years ago.
Maldon flakes are beautiful and sparkly in the light, like a pile of small, dusty rhinestones. Table salt feels, in the palm of one’s hand, like grains of soft sand; kosher salt can vary in texture from gritty to feathery. But Maldon, and its pyramid-like flakes, beg to be touched. The nerve endings at the tips of our fingers are hyper sensitive, and our sense of touch is just as crucial to cooking as our sense of taste — especially when when estimating how many grains of salt to sprinkle atop a cooked or uncooked food. That, and the fact that salt is a natural antibacterial agent, is why (as long as he’s engaging in proper hand-arm washing technique and not wearing a watch or any jewelry) Salt Bae should be able to salt sans gloves.
Keller explained his method some years ago on the Splendid Table with Lynne Rossetto Kasper:
Season your food properly — not by seasoning a piece of meat with salt when you’re really close to it, but by actually holding your hand up rather high, having the salt between your fingers and letting it fall. As it falls through the air, it’s dispersed out evenly over the piece of meat, the vegetables or whatever you’re using.
Nosrat’s book spells this out in greater detail. She gives each specific salting action a clever name (“the pinch,” “the wrist wag,” and “the palmful”), and her recipes specify not just the amount of salt and type but also how to salt the dish from preparation to finished plate.
And, well, Gökçe’s technique is on full display every time he serves a piece of meat tableside.
Most viewers are so enthralled by the show — and perhaps the chef’s well-developed musculature — that they miss that the Bae’s gooseneck-like arm position allows him to sprinkle salt evenly across a wide surface in a minimal amount of time. He’s picking up the salt with three fingers (what Nosrat calls a three-fingered “pinch”), pulling his wrist and hand back, and dropping the flakes in a flutter. As they fall they bounce off his brachioradialis, the muscle that helps the elbow bend and supports the wrist. He simultaneously sprinkles and flexes his forearm so grains ricochet off the muscle and pivot towards the plate. Sure, the theatrics might be a bit much for some, and the salt might go a bit further than desired, but the end effect is properly, evenly salted meat.