How Salt Bae Got Entangled in Venezuela's Critical Food Shortages

The backlash to video of President Nicolas Maduro and his wife eating a $275 steak at the chef's Istanbul restaurant has been swift.
September 19, 2018, 1:45pm
Screengrab via Instagram. 

It is no exaggeration to say that Venezuelans are slowly starving to death. As food supplies dwindle, its economic crisis deepens, and inflation balloons beyond any reasonable measurement, more than 90% of Venezuelans now live in poverty.

The average adult is estimated to have lost 24 pounds last year, because food is either unavailable or too expensive. One influential priest suggested that anyone who is lucky enough to have food waste should label their trash bags so the less less-fortunate can find those scraps in the garbage. And increasingly desperate thieves have broken into the country’s zoos, looking for whatever animals that could be stolen and eaten.

Meanwhile the country’s president, Nicolas Maduro, has apparently been feasting on expensive steaks at the high-dollar restaurant run by chef-turned-meme Nusret Gökçe, known online as “Salt Bae.” The internet was way over Gökçe months ago, but Maduro and his wife, Celia Flores, reportedly made their way to his restaurant in Istanbul, where the chef tended to the couple. “Nusret attended to us personally,” Maduro said, according to the BBC. “We were chatting, having a good time with him.” This time last year, Maduro pretty much suggested that starving Venezuelans should just start breeding rabbits to eat.)

Gökçe posted several videos of Maduro and Flores to Instagram, but has deleted them following near-universal backlash. According to Reuters, Maduro described the meal as “a once in a lifetime moment” in one clip; in another, he is given a cigar from a box that had been engraved with his name. He also scored his very own Salt Bae shirt. The tomahawk steak that Gökçe prepared at Maduro’s table costs $275, the Miami Herald reports.

Back in Venezuela, where the majority of citizens have reported starting each day hungry because they don’t have food, the response was complete—and completely justified—outrage. “While Venezuelans suffer and die of hunger, Nicolas Maduro and Cilia enjoy one of the priciest restaurants in the world, all with money stolen from the Venezuelan people,” opposition leader Julio Borges said.

In the United States, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) retweeted those now-deleted videos, called the chef a “weirdo,” and posted the phone number of Gökçe’s Miami restaurant.

“I don’t know who this weirdo #Saltbae is, but the guy he is so proud to host is not the President of #Venezuela,” Rubio wrote. “He is actually the overweight dictator of a nation where 30% of the people eat only once a day & infants are suffering from malnutrition.”

Honestly, it’s hard to decide whether Maduro or Gökçe finished this meal looking worse.