On Monday, in one of those very Trump-era moments of absurdity on the internet, Marco Rubio sent out four tweets accusing Salt Bae, a meat-seasoning internet celebrity in 2017, of “lavishing dictator Maduro with a steak dinner while the people of Venezuela starve.” Rubio’s decision to attack, essentially, a meme appears even stranger with Rubio’s confession that he doesn’t “know who this weirdo #Saltbae is.” What’s going on with this strange internet story?
Let’s start with Salt Bae. If you missed the videos that transformed Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe into a meme, here’s the original video of Salt Bae salting meat:
That video, taken in January 2017 and depicting nothing more than a very suave and absurd way of sprinkling salt, immediately vaulted Gökçe into a world of internet celebrity, and the rest of his social media activity documents his experience being the subject of murals and meeting celebrities like David Beckham, Leonardo DiCaprio, and DJ Khaled.
The real-life man is a chef with a restaurant business worth a reported $1.5 billion around the world. At the Miami location of his restaurant Nusr-Et, which also has a location in Istanbul, a signature steak, which comes with Salt Bae’s table-side cutting and seasoning, costs $275, according to the Miami Herald.
So why did this Turkish chef become a target of Rubio’s internet scolding? It’s possible the Cuban American senator from Florida had heard of him before and wasn’t being entirely truthful when he said he didn’t know who “this weirdo” was: Gökçe appeared in Miami news a year ago when Instagrammers curious about his restaurant that was set to open in the city discovered a photo of him from four days after Fidel Castro’s death wearing a black beret with his restaurant’s logo and posing with a photo of the late leader. Cuban Americans in the city were outraged.
But assuming Rubio hadn’t heard of that incident, Gökçe still managed to stir up more anger in the city through his friendliness toward authoritarian-leaning Latin American politicians. On Monday, in three since-deleted Instagram posts sent out to his nearly 16 million followers, Gökçe can be seen slicing and serving lamb chops to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his wife, Cilia Flores, at his Istanbul restaurant. In the video, Maduro smokes a cigar and appears to enjoy the presentation. Later on, Gökçe presented Maduro with a Salt Bae T-shirt, according to the Herald. Maduro hugs him and tells him, “I’ll see you soon in Caracas.”
The source of the outrage in this video was its decadence: Venezuela’s economy has collapsed under hyperinflation and spawned extreme poverty and widespread famine. Many have blamed Maduro’s misguided policies for the creation of a full-blown crisis in the country. Rubio, who has been a vocal critic of Maduro, whom he holds up as an example of the failures of socialism, was quick to note this:
What’s particularly surprising about this string of tweets, other than Rubio’s decision to direct so much attention toward an internet celebrity and otherwise regular civilian, was the senator’s publishing of the restaurant’s address and phone number. While some who saw Rubio’s tweets became outraged at what they saw as the doxing of Gökçe, it is not actually against Twitter’s rules to publish the address and phone number of a publicly listed company.
Regardless of legality, critics online questioned the appropriateness of what clearly seemed to be Rubio’s rallying of his Twitter followers to harass a relatively powerless person. Clearly, though, Rubio stood by his ire. He tweeted about the incident again Tuesday morning.