Restaurant News & Reviews

For ‘serving a tyrant,’ Salt Bae’s Brickell steakhouse draws scores of protesters

Outrage on the internet may be hard to quantify, but not on the sidewalk outside Salt Bae’s restaurant in Brickell Wednesday, where protesters yelled, red-faced with tears in their eyes.

A litany of chants that rhyme better in Spanish — “Ignorant chef, you support a fraud!” — rained down as about 100 Venezuelans mounted a midday protest of celebrity Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe. Earlier this week, Gökçe hosted Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro at his Istanbul restaurant and posted video of the lavish meal to his 15.7 million Instagram followers, while reports say nearly a third of Maduro’s countrymen go without food at least once a day.

With her eyes reddened and her 14-month-old daughter in her arms, Sabina Contreras sang her country’s national anthem during the 90-minute planned protest outside the Miami outpost of Gökçe’s Nusr-Et steakhouse, part of the chef’s reported $1.5 billion empire. A red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flag waved behind her.

Protesters gather in front of Salt Bae’s restaurant in Brickell, Nusr-Et Steakhouse, during a demonstration Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018, by the local Venezuelan community after celebrity chef Salt Bae personally served Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro at his Istanbul restaurant. Jose A. Iglesias

“The least we can do for the people of Venezuela is stand here and protest the restaurateur that fed an extravagant meal to Maduro while Venezuela starves,” said Contreras, a former Venezuelan lawyer who fled to Miami eight years ago and remade her life in South Florida as an attorney. “We need to send a message. You may be able to keep doing what you want, but you’re going to hear from us.”

Maduro feasted on an opulent dinner of roasted lamb, while Gökçe, who became known as Salt Bae on social media for his theatrics of sprinkling his steaks with a salt flourish, catered to Maduro. He draped a T-shirt with a caricature of himself — with the logo for his restaurants —over Maduro like a bib. And they said goodbye with a tight embrace.

“I’ll see you soon in Caracas,” Maduro told him in the video.

Those videos — later deleted but which the Miami Herald preserved and re-posted — were on the crowd’s mind during the protest, which ballooned along the sidewalk in front of the restaurant at 999 Brickell Ave.

Boos and chants of “boycott” ushered two groups of businessmen who skirted around the protest to enter the restaurant. Protesters shook signs with photographs of hungry children. They carried flags and signs touting unity with their countrymen in Latin America — and reproaching Maduro and Gökçe.

“They serve tyrants and humiliate an oppressed people,” another sign read, the video still fresh in their minds.

“I felt bewildered that there are still people who support criminals like [Maduro],” Edwin Castro, a Venezuelan who emigrated 18 years ago, said while holding his 7-year-old daughter’s hand.

Those videos quickly found an audience of detractors. Among them, Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted his disgust and posted the address and telephone number of the Miami restaurant. Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo attended Wednesday’s protest with his Venezuelan-born wife.

“It’s important that we stand together with the people who come to protest and let them know we are with them,” he said. “The message that, ‘We are not going to let people like this laugh in our faces,’ is important.”

Gökçe, who previously trolled South Floridians by posting a photo of himself striking a Fidel Castro-like pose in front of a photo of the late Cuban dictator, has responded by removing the videos from Instagram and Twitter. Maduro called it a conspiracy between governments that want to destabilize Venezuela.

The protesters called for more.

“If Maduro had come to my restaurant, I would have closed the restaurant for the day,” Ana Alcantara said, wearing a baseball cap of the Venezuelan flag. “We know what kind of person he is now. He has no heart, no decency.”

Carlos Frías is the Miami Herald’s food editor. Contact: 305-376-4624; @carlos_frias