Food

A Miami server sued Salt Bae for shorting her tips. A judge says others can sue him, too

Nusret Gökçe, the chef and restaurateur widely known as Salt Bae, demonstrates his famous technique at Nusr-Et Steakhouse in Manhattan, Feb. 2, 2018. Video of Gokce serving President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela at his restaurant in Istanbul drew an angry response online, marshaled in part by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Nusret Gökçe, the chef and restaurateur widely known as Salt Bae, demonstrates his famous technique at Nusr-Et Steakhouse in Manhattan, Feb. 2, 2018. Video of Gokce serving President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela at his restaurant in Istanbul drew an angry response online, marshaled in part by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. NYT

The man became a meme, and now the meme has become a defendant.

The international restaurateur Nusret Gökçe, known as Salt Bae for flamboyantly seasoning steaks in viral videos, was sued in federal court earlier this year by a waitress at his Miami restaurant Nusr-et Steakhouse. She claimed the restaurant illegally shared her tips with workers whose positions didn’t rely on gratuities.

Now a judge has ordered that other servers at Gökçe’s Miami restaurant can join her suit.

Seven more have signed on since U.S. Chief District Judge K. Michael Moore wrote Aug. 21 that the case now has “collective action” status. The latest court decision can be read at this link.

Attorneys for the waitress, Melissa Compere, and the seven others who opted in say there could be as many as 200 workers who are eligible. They include any front-of-the-house staffers who worked at the restaurant in the two years before they filed their original suit in January.

“Nobody wants to be in a job where they work really hard, trying to pay for their kids’ college, so their boss can buy a new Porsche,” attorney Lowell Kuvin, who represents Compere and the other plaintiffs, told the Miami Herald.

The heart of the Compere’s issue comes to how Nurs-et charges customers a service fee.

Florida law says Nusr-et can charge a flat service fee that it can use to recoup losses (such as broken dishes) before splitting the money with its workers, according to the Florida Fair Labor Standards Act. However, if a bill includes a separate line for tips, that money must go directly to workers whose salary is dependent on tips.

Compere says the restaurant lumped those tips and the service charge into the pool that went to all employees. She claims the way Nusr-et split the tips kept workers like her from making the mandated minimum wage, according to her original complaint. That lawsuit can be downloaded at this link. The Miami New Times first reported the change in the case’s status.

This isn’t the first time Gökçe has been sued on this charge.

A waiter at his New York restaurant filed a suit three days before Compere in the federal Southern District of New York. That case is ongoing, and the attorney Kuvin said he has been in touch with those attorneys as they move forward.

Gökçe’s legal troubles mirror several high-profile public gaffes.

Turkish chef Salt Bae received Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores at his restaurant in Istanbul. Videos posted to social media show him preparing food for Maduro.

Last September, he feted Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, his wife and entourage with a lavish meal at his Istanbul restaurant and posted video to his more than 15 million followers — all as Venezuela endures widespread food shortages and mass exodus. He fed and posed with Donald Trump Jr. at his New York restaurant a month later.

A year earlier, just as his Miami restaurant opened, diners discovered an Instagram post in which Gökçe had posted a tribute to the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, writing, “they say you too started a revolution.”

A meal at Nusr-et is regularly a fabulously expensive affair, with a $30 burger on the menu and a $120 Ottoman Steak comes with the chef slicing and salting the meat tableside with a flick of the wrist. The prices go up if the meme-maker himself happens to be in the kitchen.

Both U.S. restaurants have since received lukewarm reviews. A Herald critic wrote in March of 2018, “Nusr-Et is just another steakhouse (and a very expensive Instagram photo). It will take more than a viral flick of the wrist for it to survive in this town.”

A look at the latest court decision:

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