Nicolás Maduro — allegedly Venezuela’s president and the man responsible for the country’s economic collapse and food shortages so severe they are causing starvation — feasted on steak with celebrity chef Salt Bae in Istanbul over the weekend. Nusret Gökçe, the chef known for his salt-sprinkling skills, seemed honored to host Maduro at his restaurant Nusr-Et, and even bragged about his guest in a now-deleted Instagram post. The incident garnered the attention of Senator Marco Rubio, who berated Gökçe on Twitter for showing hospitality to a dictator.
This would have been just another celebrity sighting at Salt Bae’s inexplicably popular steakhouse, but Maduro’s country is in dire straits. Since 2014, the South American country’s citizens have protested widespread corruption and limited access to basic supplies and food. Studies say Venezuelans lost an average of 24 pounds of body weight each in 2017, and a staggering 90 percent now live in poverty.
Other diners at Salt Bae’s restaurant captured Maduro’s display of extravagance: “This is a once in a lifetime moment,” Maduro says in one video, according to Reuters. Gökçe is seen slicing a $275 steak while moving his hips from side to side, standing next to Maduro’s wife Cilia, in the next shot. In another video, Maduro is seen smoking a cigar with Salt Bae.
Maduro confirmed the visit to the press on Monday. He said he stopped at the restaurant for lunch on his way back from Beijing where he was trying to negotiate new trade deals, according to Reuters. “Nusret attended to us personally,” Maduro said. “We were chatting, having a good time with him. ... He loves Venezuela, he told me several times.”
Twitter users quickly created a hashtag (#MaduroSeJartaConTUDinero, translated as “Maduro is stuffing his face with your money”), and memes depicting Salt Bae sprinkling salt over starving children, people eating garbage off the street, and the country of Venezuela bleeding.
Today, Venezuelans are so desperate for meat that, because of rolling power outages that leave food without refrigeration for days, they’re willing to buy spoiled beef just to get protein, according to the AP.
This isn’t the first time Salt Bae has come under fire for political ignorance: Last year, Gökçe dressed up as Fidel Castro in an Instagram post. It was like rubbing salt on Cuban wounds in Miami, where he’d just opened a new restaurant, the Miami Herald reported.
This time, the salty chef isn’t getting a pass. Politicians both inside and out of Venezeula are calling out Maduro’s feast, and Salt Bae’s proud moment. “While Venezuelans are suffering and dying of hunger, Maduro and Cilia enjoy one of the most expensive restaurants in the world, all at the expense of money stolen from the Venezuelan people,” opposition politician Julio Borges, who was recently exiled from Venezuela, wrote on Twitter. Florida Senator Marco Rubio echoed Borges sentiments, and called out Gökçe, writing, “I don’t know who this weirdo #Saltbae is, but the guy he is so proud to host is not the President of #Venezuela. He is actually the overweight dictator of a nation where 30% of the people eat only once a day & infants are suffering from malnutrition.”