From humble beginnings that involved traveling abroad to learn his trade on borrowed money and with no language skills, Nusret Gökçe (aka Salt Bae) is now a world-famous chef and owner of the hugely popular luxury steakhouse brand Nusr-Et and #Saltbae burger restaurants, found around the globe.
In this open and honest interview, the internet sensation tells HN what he thinks sets his luxury dining experience apart from others and how a determination to be the best at what he does is enough to stop complacency from setting in.
What were your earliest sources of inspiration and motivation?
I was born in Paşalı, a small Turkish village in Şenkaya, Erzurum, which still only has a population of around 1,400 people today. If I’m honest, I have to admit that village life was far from easy – resources were limited, conditions difficult and prejudices rife. It was very different to the big city lifestyle of Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir in Turkey.
I started out on my journey when I took a job as a butcher’s apprentice. I was only 13 years old, but needed the job due to ﬁnancial difficulties. I worked 20 hours a day, learned fast and tried to get as many tasks done as possible. It paid off and I got a job at what was the best steakhouse in Turkey at that time. The job instilled a curiosity in me. I began to wonder how this type of business worked around the world and how I could do it better to become the best. It was in this context that I opened the ﬁrst door toward changing my life.
You took a bold decision aged 25 which set you on the path to success. What can you tell us about it?
It was when I was at my most curious that faith came into play. I was aged 25, with no English language knowledge, when I decided to travel to two countries famed for their meat – Argentina and the US – with just USD 500 in my pocket, which I’d borrowed. Looking back, I realize this was a bold move, but I learned the business, worked hard with an insatiable appetite to become better and met the right people.
I knew to appreciate and value them. This is how ‘I’ became ‘we’ over time. We have grown with faith, dedication and constant effort since I opened my ﬁrst restaurant in Etiler, Istanbul, in 2010. And today, I work even harder to ensure my story continues to develop. As a result, I think fame is a reﬂection of sincerity, working from the heart, not giving up, always being prepared to go the extra mile and staying true to yourself. Long story short, I set out on a path, I believed in the path I took and I worked hard for the sake of what I believed in. I never gave up and I still look for ways to improve. Success is my biggest motivation.
What’s the backstory to your unique, world-famous style and seasoning/serving meat dishes?
I think that food should appeal to all the senses and my style, which is recognized for being so distinguishable from others, refers to this. From the day I opened my ﬁrst restaurant, I’ve made it a point to personally serve my guests at their tables and chat with them to make sure that I’m offering them a spectacular dining experience. These visits and warm conversations have provided me with the room to improve and treasured friendships. Over time, I’ve developed my current style and have created a dynamic service atmosphere to make the dining experience enjoyable, different and lively.
I think eating should be exciting; the service should support the ﬂavors for the palate, while appealing to all the senses with its style. When it comes to taste, there are many crucial points, ranging from the nature of the food and cooking techniques to marination. These are all very important. I’m a ﬁrm believer in looking at the subject as a whole, but recognizing that it’s made up of taste, smell, appearance and service, which are all parts that are essential. There is no end to learning and working, but I think getting the taste right, so that it hits the spot, comes from looking at the subject with love. There is then also a heartfelt quality to it.
Your restaurants offer luxurious dining experiences. What does this entail?
When talking about a luxury experience, I think that ﬁrst, it’s necessary to speak about quality. Quality inevitably produces luxury. Only high quality, individually selected products enter Nusr-Et kitchens. I think, too, that the trick here is to focus not only on the quality of the food, but also on the quality of the service, architecture and interaction with the guests. Once again, it’s necessary to think of the whole package. From the hostess that greets you at the door and the waitress at your table to our So, in addition to the unique food we offer, I think that we also put forward emotional luxury through the communication we establish with our guests. The greatest cherry-picked kitchen teams – these parts make up the entire service experience. Food and its number one accompaniment – service – should always be impeccable and I have been working on this since day one.
So, in addition to the unique food we offer, I think that we also put forward emotional luxury through the communication we establish with our guests. The greatest luxury is bonding, touching our guests’ hearts and leaving an unforgettable mark.
Our shows during service, the world-class meat selection offered and our gold-plated meats merit another mention, since we focus on luxury within this framework. We’re always thinking how we can take the experience to the next level, while treating our guests to exquisite ﬂavors. As a team, we have an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset.
Having branched out around the world, how do you adapt your offering to local tastes, while maintaining your unique style?
I think I’m quite lucky here, since our main product is meat, which is universal and a big part of the food and beverage industry, wherever you go in the world. My focus has always been my meat and how to make improvements, while the biggest challenge was to differentiate with what is a truly universal product. In this regard, I’m incredibly proud that I’ve managed to create something that stands out from the rest. Visit any of our restaurants today and you won’t ﬁnd huge menu differences from one location to another, just some regional additions from time to time. I’ve been able to achieve what I’ve done so far by targeting excellent quality, practicing what I do in my job thoroughly, working hard, non-stop learning, improving myself, keeping focused and not taking success for granted. My secret is putting my character out there. I love my job; my restaurants are everything to me. They made me who I am today.
If you could be known for one thing, what would it be?
As the master of my craft and a world meat pioneer. I set my heart on this, working 20 hours a day, sleeping at the restaurant and having many sleepless nights, but I never gave up. I dedicated my life and my heart to transforming meat into art and this is what made me the best. I changed my destiny and my fortune. As you can tell, I’m in love with what I do. Let me be known for this.
Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
Of course – we keep moving forward, taking ﬁrm steps in that direction. We have goals set around the world, including in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and new locations in Europe, the Far East and beyond. If you place a world map in front of you, anywhere and everywhere is a possibility. Nusr-Et is a very powerful brand, recognized and desired worldwide.