THE CIRCULAR

What is it with Salt Bae?

For the active users of the social media, a wide range of services are advertised, and even a wider range of media products are distributed for public consumption. ‘Participatory media technologies’, as William Terrel Wright (2020) calls them, have brought with them an opportunity for private individuals to produce and distribute media products without the mediation and oversight of the traditional or legacy media. Talk shows, news vlogs, pet diaries, choreography and dance offs are some of the products which dominate the social media space. The past decade, however, has seen the rise of a new social media fad; food vlogging. And it is in this category that Nusret Gökçe became a worldwide sensation in 2017 with the start of his Salt Bae short videos. On January 7, 2017, the then 34 year old Nusret posted a short video on Instagram where he dramatically cut a steak before sprinkling salt on the steak in an even more dramatic way; flexing his arm and letting the salt roll down his forearm onto the steak. The said video has since gone on to get just under 17 million views, and in that time Nusret Gökçe and his Salt Bae videos have grown in popularity. This is in big part thanks to what one may call a fanatical patronage of his restaurants by sports stars, musicians, and celebrities from other industries.

Steak, Photo by Nadin Sh: https://www.pexels.com/photo/sliced-steak-on-a-wooden-board-8694617/

He has over the years expanded his business chain to include restaurants in Dubai, Miami, New York City, Istanbul, Paris, and London, bringing his product closer just not to the media audience but to the celebrities who would have had to spend longer hours coming to Istanbul for the treat. Now, the early reviews of his product, in terms of food value, were not close to satisfactory. The New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo who had a $521.45 meal for three in the Nusr-Et New York restaurant on the night of January 21, 2018, described the experience in an article two days later as ‘Public Rip-off No. 1.’ which left them “craving a snack”. And while Cuozzo expended a big part of his analysis on the outrageous prices, the quality of the meals was no less a big area for commentary. These were his final words in the said article, “But we want more substance with the smoke and salt — and dishes that not only sultans can afford.”

Also, Clayton Guse, writing for Timeout.com on February 8, 2018, in an article titled ‘You created Salt Bae, and now you have to eat his nasty food’ described the establishment as “probably the greatest con to be pulled off in New York City since Boss Tweed built his political machine in the 19th century.”

The takeaway from these and many more reviews is that there may not be anything spectacular about Salt Bae’s food. And this now begs the question why Salt Bae has maintained an ever-growing social media fanbase. In finding answers, it would be important to delineate Salt Bae the show and Salt Bae the steak. From popular reviews there are notable reservations about the steak, however, hardly would anybody be in doubt about the reach of and interest built around the show. So, in analysing his media content, it is important to suggest that evidently the point of interest in Salt Bae is not the constants, in this case; Nusret, his sunglasses, steak and salt, rather the interest is on the variables which we shall see shortly.

 In his early episodes, he put out a solo performance, and successive clips were barely different from the previous ones. However, before the uniformity and predictability of his clips could induce boredom and disinterest in his audience, Nusret began to include elements of dynamism in his clips. First, he went beyond only sensually cutting steak and sprinkling salt and started cutting fruits and vegetables. And if cutting watermelons in mid-air didn’t resuscitate waning interest, his change of wardrobe did. He went beyond spotting just his signature white t-shirt to having on a range of designer shirts. As he made these changes, he apparently drew to himself a wider range of fans. For example, his new dynamism in attire may have drawn the attention of a demography of fashion enthusiasts.

 While these new additions constitute a good part of the variables in his clips, the main variables in each successive video are represented mainly by the presence of a new celebrity. His clips have featured such sports stars and media celebrities as David Beckham, Lionel Messi, Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang, Michael Phelps, Nico Rosberg, Simone Biles, Ilkay Gundogan, Tommy Hilfiger, Leonardo Di Caprio among others. Ordinarily, there may not have been something to keep people interested in watching a man on a white shirt sprinkling salt over steak, but his media audience are in large part maintained by the presence of these celebrities, most of whom they are fans of, in those short video clips.

An analogy would help in analysing this at this point. Talk shows such as the Graham Norton Show may not have the much viewership they have if it was just the host talking to viewers for two hours. The mere fact of having an audience in the room, to create a fitting ambience, and more, of having different guests in each episode help keep the viewing public interested. Similarly, in the evolution of Salt Bae over the years, Nusret Gökçe could be likened to a talk show host who wore the same clothing and said the same things word for word in every episode, and then gradually began to alternate attires, introduce new topics, and invite different guests on every episode.

Now, one way to look at the audience reception and followership of Salt Bae is to see it in two levels. On one level it is a classic example of what Marx and Engels described as ‘false consciousness’, and on another level, it is a classic example of what Gramsci described as ‘Cultural hegemony’. One may see that society is often being controlled in large part by the dominant values and culture of the minority elite. In certain cultures, in Africa, for example, the Muslim pilgrimage is more than just a religious rite, people strive to make the trip to Mecca, and to gain the title ‘Alhaji’ which represents an upward mobility on the social ladder. One is not really considered elite enough unless he or she is an Alhaji or Alhaja. It thus becomes one dominant value which the lower class unconsciously aspires to, and which anyone in the upper-class ticks off the box to properly belong. A member of the elite doing what the elite do, Marx considers to be ‘class consciousness’, while the masses striving to do things as the elite would do them, Marx considers to be ‘false consciousness’. The proclivity for celebrities to constantly visit the Nusr-Et restaurant, and to get featured on the Salt Bae clips is evidently a manifestation of class consciousness, and the cultural hegemony which is derived from these celebrities and rules over their fans, and which makes the average fan to want to look like them, dress like them, eat like them, or to like what they like, leaves in the fan (and audience) a false consciousness.           

     In this period several similar food vloggers have emerged on the social media, but arguably, Nusret Gökçe’s biggest competition must be another Turkish chef by name Burak Özdemir. Özdemir hit the limelight in 2019 on Instagram and grew in popularity at the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns. Burak’s video clips through which he has endeared himself to millions of social media users is under the sobriquet ‘CZN Burak’. What Salt Bae lacks in suspense and wonder, CZN Burak has in abundance. In his clips, Özdemir would in quick video shots, take the viewer through the different stages of preparing colourful and apparently delicious meals. His menu is significantly longer, or with a richer variety, but perhaps the most significant thing about his clips, and probably the biggest dissimilarity with Gökçe’s Salt Bae is that he looks intently at the camera with a wide tropical smile the whole show thus creating an indeterminate connection with the viewer. CZN Burak has 32.5 million Instagram followers as against Salt Bae’s 43.1 million Instagram followers. Though still having the lower number, CZN Burak has grown in a significantly shorter period, and has more potentials to cover the gap and go ahead. The video clips have more interest and excitement values in and of themselves than Salt Bae’s clips, and even though Özdemir infrequently features guests on his clips, most of these guests are often less-known people. Notably, he also features people with handicaps or certain genetic conditions as part of his less-known charity and philanthropic activities.

As implied earlier, one thing which may be deduced from the element of featuring guests in these clips, is that it is an advertising or marketing strategy used to communicate with the audience. If a footballer shows up on a Salt Bae video watching intently as Gökçe salts his steak, it communicates with football fans, and if a top musician is featured on the clip, it communicates with the followers of the said musician.  Now, it is common for interest to wane eventually on things that are monotonous, and as such media content creators are under pressure to intersperse a new element with the regular features of the product, every now and then. To maintain popularity with the audience, Gökçe would need to make necessary changes to Salt Bae, when need be, if it must not lose its saltiness to the audience. Yes, we may never run out of celebrities, but the fad of getting featured on Salt Bae videos as part of Marx’s class consciousness, would fade away with time, and these celebrities would hop on the next fad. Gökçe could borrow a leaf from Burak Özdemir here, by featuring random guests on his video clips, and involving more in charity. It should be pointed here that Özdemir’s followership or audience grew along with the increase in his well-documented works of being featured on his CZN Burak clips. Salt Bae, at least for now, still comes off as an experiment on elitism, where the who is who in sports, entertainment and showbiz show up to profess their performative love for salt, steak, and smoke. As well as improving the quality of his meals, making them as colourful at least, if not as tasty as the meals seen on CZN Burak’s clips, Gökçe should also connect with the ordinary people in just a similar as Özdemir has done with CZN Burak. Because while it is possible to run out of celebrities, there is a less probability of running out of ordinary people. Salt Bae’s audience would run on the gas of watching celebrity diners for as long as possible, but while it lasts the producers should, for the sake of ensuring continued success, explore the significantly bigger potentials of appealing to popular emotion by featuring the less privileged in these video clips.    In conclusion, it would not be incorrect to say that while the social media has opened the public sphere up to a more inclusive participation, it has created along the way a new brand of celebrities; celebrity media content creators; random individuals and professionals, who unlike football and movie stars are made famous not necessarily by their professions, but by putting out free media content on the social media. Nusret Gökçe is a classic example of this new brand of celebrities, and Salt Bae is a classic example of these media products

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