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Salt Bae's former employees describe tip theft, discrimination, and polyester uniforms within the memeable meat empire

Sophia Ankel   

Salt Bae's former employees describe tip theft, discrimination, and polyester uniforms within the memeable meat empire

The Instagram-famous butcher is known for his over-the-top antics. A string of lawsuits and interviews with former employees reveal a darker side.

Illustrations by Marianne Ayala

The suggestion of luxury begins the moment you walk up to a Nusr-Et restaurant.

Outside, bouncers in suits loiter around velvet ropes. Inside, through the heavy brass doors, are rows of lit-up refrigerators stocked with thick, marbled pieces of meat on metal hooks. A large neon sign reads "No Salt, No Love." A host might whisk you away to a table, where waiters dressed in black latex gloves circle like hawks.

With its moody lighting and pulsing house music, the dining room feels like a nightclub. And it has just one star attraction: Nusret Gökçe, known around the world as Salt Bae.

Gökçe, whose culinary empire spans three continents, often travels from restaurant to restaurant, taking selfies with excited guests and performing his flamboyant salting technique throughout the night.

"He walked in, it was freaking Backstreet Boys," a former manager who worked closely with the celebrity butcher in his Miami and New York restaurants said. "Everybody was screaming."

With all eyes on Gökçe, you might miss a second figure, who follows the chiseled salt sprinkler like a shadow — the so-called salt boy. He has one main job: trail Gökçe around with a bowl of salt so he can perform the salting move at a second's notice.

The salt boy gets paid like any other food runner, according to the manager. "It's not a bad job to just walk around him with a bowl of salt. Getting paid the same as the rest of the food runners who are running their butt off," he said.

"I mean, it's a little demeaning to me," he added. "I wouldn't want to do it."

The presence of the salt boy is classic Gökçe: ridiculous, performative, and all in service of the meat maestro's image. Glitz and showmanship are the lifeblood of his empire. His online presence, in particular, oozes wealth: There he is on a private jet, and on a speedboat. Now he's dressed in a suit with a cigar in his mouth, a glistening watch flashes on his wrist. At his New York restaurant, customers can expect to pay $300 for a "Golden Burger." His London restaurant alone reported £7 million, or $9.2 million, in sales in its first three months, public financial documents show.

Over the years, his wealth, persona, and ubiquity — he has opened 22 of his very pricy steakhouses in some of the biggest cities around the world — have turned him into a caricature, the living embodiment of a stale meme. His most recent headline-grabbing antics — finagling his way onto the World Cup pitch following Argentina's victory over France — were widely panned.

But seven lawsuits in two cities and interviews with nine former staff members from six restaurants depict another side to Gökçe: a petty tyrant whose obsession with wealth and excess extends only to himself.

His clownish image camouflages a darker pattern, according to the lawsuits and interviews: allegations of wage theft, discrimination, labor violations, and a testosterone-saturated culture of fear. And while he puffs on cigars and flashes his expensive watches, his restaurants offer a false promise of luxury, the former staffers say.

The former staffers — whose jobs ranged from front-of-house roles like waiter, bartender, and host to manager and head sommelier — told Insider the internet icon was prone to favoritism and frequent, unpredictable firings.

It looks "gold from the outside," a former bartender at Nusr-Et London told Insider. "But shit from inside."

Do you have a story about working for the Nusr-Et restaurant empire? Contact reporter Sophia Ankel.

All of the former staffers requested anonymity, fearing professional repercussions. Their identities and employment histories are known to Insider.

Gökçe did not respond to interview requests from Insider.

In response to a detailed list of queries, Christy Reuter, a lawyer representing Gökçe and his businesses, said in a statement: "The allegations are really nothing more than a re-hash of old lawsuits where the claims were disputed and have long since been settled."

"Unfortunately, high profile restaurants and popular chefs are often targets for salacious and meritless claims. Nusret is no different. Nusret employs more than a thousand employees around the world — it is a shame that a few old lawsuits and some unflattering remarks should overshadow the tremendous amount of effort that goes into maintaining a global restaurant workforce, particularly through COVID, or the contributions made by Chef Nusret in creating a mobile kitchen to provide over 6,000 hot meals to victims of the tragic earthquakes."

Gökçe was working in his Dubai restaurant in January 2017 in that video. You know the one.

In the 36-second Instagram clip, he wears a pair of small, round sunglasses and a white T-shirt with a deep scoop. His slick black hair is tied back, and his goatee and eyebrows are immaculately trimmed. He crouches, knife in hand, before sensually carving a steak into thin slices. When he finishes, he cocks his forearm up, bends his wrist, and sprinkles salt on the steak.

The pop star Bruno Mars shared a screenshot of Gökçe's salting technique on Twitter, alongside the caption "Annndddd I'm out." The Salt Bae meme was born.

Suddenly, everybody wanted a slice of the mysterious Turkish butcher: The late-night talk-show host James Corden called him the "Christian Grey of red meat," a "Saturday Night Live" skit parodied him as "the most important chef in the world," and A-list celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and David Beckham flocked to his restaurants.

Meanwhile, Gökçe leaned into his memeification hard, posting Instagram videos of himself sprinkling salt out of a helicopter, drinking a drone-delivered, gold-topped cappuccino under the Hollywood sign, and scattering rose petals on top of meat arranged to look like a heart for Valentine's Day. He also capitalized on his newfound fame by opening more restaurants.

When he's not working out or posting stony-faced photos on Instagram, Gökçe visits his restaurants to check in with his teams and interact with customers, former employees told Insider. There, his main job is to be the meme — down to the same signature outfit.

"His world was nothing but Instagram and fame," the former manager told Insider.

"The sensation was him. He ended up getting this godlike complex."

For some employees, his presence created an atmosphere of fear, where any misstep could get them into trouble with their managers or, worse, Gökçe himself.

An August 2021 lawsuit filed by five former grillers at Nusr-Et New York described an "aggressive managerial style" in which he frequently cursed at employees and blamed them for their colleagues' mistakes.

One former bartender at Gökçe's Mykonos restaurant compared his boss to a dictator. Another, the former bartender at the London steakhouse, compared its environment to the "Hunger Games," saying staffers never knew whether they would be fired before the end of their shift.

When a former host at Nusr-Et London first accepted the job, a friend in the hospitality industry warned against it, she told Insider. "It's a bad idea," she recalled the friend telling her. "Don't go there."

None of these Nusr-Et restaurants responded to detailed queries from Insider.

At first, the London host waved off the advice. She had worked in hospitality for years and was used to the high-stress environment of a restaurant. But she quickly realized that working at Nusr-Et was different. "When you are inside, you understand," she told Insider. "You are not relaxed. You are ready to get fired."

"You don't know if he's watching you," she added, referencing his signature sunglasses. "It's very uncomfortable to be around him."

The host was among the London restaurant's first hires in 2021. But two months in, she said, only half of the dozens of original employees who had been hired were still working there. Many others, including her, had been fired, she told Insider. One of her colleagues was fired on the spot after she accidentally broke a glass in front of the celebrity butcher, she said; another waiter was not hired because Gökçe "didn't like his shirt."

"If he doesn't like anyone, you're done, no notice period, nothing," she told Insider. "They tell you to leave straight away."

He was also unhappy when the restaurant wasn't busy, she said. During an especially quiet lunchtime shift, he ordered several staffers to stand in line outside the restaurant to make it look busy, she said.

"He's your owner and you have to do what he likes," she said. "You can't argue with him."

Gökçe also apparently used his restaurants as an extension of his home. Two former employees at restaurants in Mykonos and Dubai told Insider that they witnessed him ask a restaurant employee for massages.

When he was feeling particularly tired, the Dubai employee said, he would simply fall asleep at the restaurant. "A few times he fell asleep on the covers for the tables," the employee said, adding that they were uncertain whether they could leave until he woke up.

For International Women's Day in 2020, the steakhouse empire bragged about hosting "40,766 women free of charge" in all Nusr-Et restaurants around the world.

But three female former employees told Insider their discomfort with working at Gökçe's restaurants was tied to a hypermasculine culture.

"You feel like you were treated a lot less, not really respected," a former reservations agent at Nusr-Et Miami told Insider. While the reservations agent wore a standard uniform, she said some female colleagues were made to wear dresses that looked like they were "going to the club."

A November 2021 lawsuit describes a similar environment. In the complaint, Elizabeth Cruz, a former bartender at Nusr-Et New York, alleges she was asked by a general manager to change into a "short skirt, high-heels, and revealing top" on her first day of work. Upon realizing she was Dominican, Cruz said in her filing, her manager told her, "My wife is Dominican. I know how you women are," which she took as a suggestion of sexual promiscuity.

Though she felt humiliated, Cruz complied with the manager's request. Her male colleagues began to harass her, the filing said. One employee told her that she should work as a stripper. Another followed her home one evening, pestering her to go on a date with him despite her pleas to stop.

Two weeks into the job, Cruz asked to wear the standard uniform of pants and a button-down shirt instead, but the manager denied her request. Several days later, she was fired. In her complaint, Cruz alleges she was terminated in retaliation for her complaints. (The lawsuit is still ongoing; Gökçe's lawyers requested to move to arbitration, but Cruz's lawyers want it to remain in the courts.)

In another lawsuit, filed in January 2020, Melissa Compere, a former employee at Nusr-Et Miami, said she was hired as a food runner and later moved to cocktail waitress. The complaint alleges she wasn't promoted to server, despite her decade of experience, because of her gender.

Her complaint claims that Compere "was more qualified than many of the male servers, especially one male who was hired as a server but had never worked as a server in any restaurant." It also alleged Gökçe was personally responsible for the decision to deny her the role. Though she was eventually promoted to server, Compere said in the complaint that she was forced to either give up her shift or revert back to the position of cocktail waitress whenever Gökçe was in town so he would not "see" her.

In November 2018, Compere was fired when a diner complained about finding a piece of glass on their table, the lawsuit says. Though at least seven employees were involved, the complaint says, the only two fired were women.

Compere and the restaurant reached a confidential settlement agreement in 2021. Nusr-Et Miami did not respond to detailed queries, nor did Compere's lawyer for that suit. In a legal filing, lawyers for Gökçe denied her claims.

Compere was also the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit filed against the restaurant about illegal tip sharing; Gökçe's lawyers denied the claims, and the suit was decided in favor of the restaurant. (In her statement, Reuter, Gökçe's lawyer, noted that "Nusret fought, and won, a federal lawsuit in Miami where employees alleged they were not properly paid." Compere's lawyer declined to comment.)

Allegations of discrimination appear in multiple lawsuits against Gökçe and his restaurants; they were also common in Insider's interviews.

In Cruz's filing, she noted that other female employees — many of whom were Turkish like Gökçe — didn't wear what she wore.

In a complaint submitted in November 2021, Angelo Maher, a server at Nusr-Et New York, claims that he was fired around March 2020 after he spoke out against what he called "nationality-based employment discrimination." Despite his "previous strong performance," the filing says, he wasn't rehired after COVID-19 restrictions were eased, even though Turkish employees were. The lawsuit also said Turkish employees were not reprimanded for their mistakes in the same way, a claim echoed by another former employee who spoke with Insider.

Maher, who identifies as Latino, said in his filing that he was called "Spanish shit" by a colleague and that he suffered "mental and physical anguish" after the workplace became a place of "physical intimidation and discriminatory intimidation directed at non-Turkish employees." The lawsuit is ongoing; both sides agreed to formal mediation last year. Maher's lawyer, who also represents Elizabeth Cruz in her suit, declined to comment on either suit.

His family's poor financial situation forced Gökçe to drop out of school, he has said, and he eventually found work as a butcher's apprentice, where he learned how to carve, smoke, and cure an array of meats. In 2009, he traveled to meat meccas Buenos Aires and New York to size up the competition.

He wasn't impressed. He told The Wall Street Journal in a 2017 interview that American steakhouses lacked a performative element, which he believed was crucial to an unforgettable meal. "You get the same hot plate, the same butter, the same service," he said.

During a recent visit to Nusr-Et London, Gökçe's touches of drama were everywhere. Diners at one table ordered the "Nusret Special Sushi" — composed of thinly sliced raw striploin — and watched as the server constructed the entire dish from scratch.

For the finale, the server brought a propane torch out from underneath the table, holding the flame up for everyone to see. Then, he paused briefly, waiting for the excited guests to pull out their iPhones and watch, through their screens, as he torched the meat.

The guests paid £25, or about $31, for three pieces of "sushi." Elsewhere, a giant tomahawk steak sets you back over £630, a side of corn is £11, and an "Onion Flower" — which looks suspiciously like a Bloomin' Onion — costs £18.

But former employees said the luxury is a charade.

Everything from napkins to glassware was "cheap as hell," said the former bartender at Nusr-Et London. The polyester uniforms were "the most horrible I've ever worked in," he added. (In her lawsuit alleging tip theft, Melissa Compere claimed she had to pay for and maintain the uniform herself.)

"They were paper thin," the London bartender said, describing how his uniform jacket ripped after one week of wear.

There were other shortcuts. If customers left wine in a bottle they purchased, bartenders were told to resell it in glasses, he said. When retailers brought over wine samples, usually free, he said, bartenders were asked to sell them to customers instead.

Former employees said staff members were also made to pay for their mistakes — literally.

Once, the former Dubai employee, a food runner, accidentally delivered a bag of leftover steak to the wrong table. The mistake meant 500 dirhams, or about $140, was slashed from her tips, and the 19-year-old was distraught. She also told Insider she saw a colleague forced to pay 3,000 dirhams because her table left without paying.

"And that was obviously not her mistake. I don't think it's fair," she said. "The restaurant is so rich. It's so rich and they just made her pay."

Two former employees said they felt uncomfortable because they had to lie about what they were serving to upsell items. A server in Dubai told Insider she was told to tell customers that one steak, which was hundreds of dollars more expensive than another steak, was better quality — even though it was from the same piece of meat.

In his lawsuit, Maher also claimed that he had to tell customers the New York steakhouses' meat was halal — food permitted by Islam — "despite the fact that this claim was not true."

Even the decor was seen as an opportunity to save money. According to an April 2021 lawsuit seeking $5 million, the Brooklyn-based artist William Logan Hicks said Gökçe used his artwork in restaurants all over the world without his permission.

Hicks said he was commissioned to create several murals of Gökçe in his "signature salt-sprinkling pose" that were licensed for use at several Nusr-Et outposts. But the Instagram star used Hicks' graphic in other contexts — on menus, saltshakers, wet wipes, and valet parking signs.

When Hicks and his lawyers sent a letter warning Gökçe against any further use of Hicks' original works, the Turkish butcher "doubled down" and kept printing the artwork for even more of his restaurants, the lawsuit alleged. (Hicks' lawyer told Insider the lawsuit was settled but would not specify for how much. In a memorandum, Gökçe's lawyers argued that the artwork was based on an original photograph belonging to Gökçe.)

Many former employees described the restaurants' aggressive sales culture, one that would leave many patrons with four- and five-figure bills.

"It was just about trying to get almost as much money out of the people who were coming through the door," said the London outpost's former head sommelier, who regularly sold thousands of dollars worth of alcohol. The former sommelier and the former Dubai server told Insider this drive was extreme, even compared with other celebrity-driven restaurants they had worked for.

"It was just like a machine," the former sommelier said.

Yet according to lawsuits and other documents reviewed by Insider, that revenue did not always make it to Gökçe's employees.

In October 2019, Gökçe settled with four former employees at one of his New York restaurants for $230,000. They alleged in a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that the restaurant bilked them out of tips and fired them when they complained. In response to questions about NLRB complaints, Reuter, the lawyer, said, "Like the other cases in your initial inquiry, these too were resolved several years ago."

Maher said in his lawsuit that he was not allowed to receive tips when he was serving celebrities, like the rapper French Montana, in the New York restaurant.

In a different lawsuit from 2019, another former New York waiter, Mustafa Fteja, alleged that Gökçe skimmed 3% off the top of tips before distributing them to employees. The class-action suit said management "systematically fired each waiter who complained about not getting paid tips," including Fteja. The former waiter settled with Gökçe in July 2020 for $300,000. Fteja's lawyers didn't respond to a request for comment. Gökçe's lawyers called the claims "meritless."

In 2018 and 2019, as Gökçe was expanding his meat empire in the US, he asked five of his grillers in Istanbul to relocate to New York for him, according to the August 2021 lawsuit.

Gökçe filed paperwork to obtain visas for them, which said they would have top-paying jobs and managerial opportunities, the lawsuit says. But the reality was much different.

Despite being hired as "meat grillers," the employees claim they had to perform unrelated duties, including cleaning toilets and preparing "special meals for the managers and Gökçe when he was present."

During the COVID-19 shutdowns and moments of social unrest in New York, the grillers also had to perform "security work," including "staying at the restaurants overnight to ensure that the buildings were not vandalized," the lawsuit claims. They also said they had to work "grueling hours" and were not paid overtime as required by New York law. (The lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed; a lawyer for the grillers told Insider the case was "amicably resolved.")

The manager who helped Gökçe open his restaurants in Miami and New York said much of the Instagram butcher's business had been done the "Istanbul way," with little regard to compliance with local laws.

"The restaurants were being run by other people that were close to him and reported to him, but he was so into internet fame that, truly, I don't think he really put the right amount of thought into what he did," he said.

Gökçe's restaurants are only ever packed when he's in town, on standby to take pictures and perform his signature move, former employees said. For the past six years, Gökçe has gone to great lengths to keep his celebrity flame alive.

Most recently, he headed onto the field after Argentina's historic World Cup victory over France, taking selfies with players and even grabbing the golden trophy from them — triggering a FIFA investigation. (In a statement provided to Insider, a representative for FIFA said "the investigation was internal and we won't be commenting beyond that.")

He was lambasted for his actions, with one person on Twitter joking that Gökçe was an example of "what happens if you don't develop a cohesive meme containment plan."

Apparently on the assumption that all internet fame is good internet fame, Gökçe posted six photos — two featuring his signature move — of him holding the trophy and posing with Argentina's stars.

In wire photos, Gökçe, clad in his trademark sunglasses, stands behind the super striker Lionel Messi. Ever the showman, he reaches out to grab the arm of the famed athlete.

But Messi, joyously celebrating with teammates, brushes him off, and turns his back on him.