Passing Idols: Salt Bae, Moses and foodolatry

By now you have probably heard of Salt Bae and his £1,450 steaks wrapped in gold leaf. If you haven’t, you’ve not spent a lot of time on social media recently. And I suspect your life is better for it. 

Nusret Gökçe, otherwise known as Salt Bae, is the chef behind the chain of luxury steakhouses Nusr-Et, the most recent branch of which has opened in London’s Knightsbridge. Over the last couple of weeks various millionaires and social influencers have eaten there, some of whom have celebrated it as an incredible piece of high-end food-theatre, whilst others have expressed their outrage at being presented with bills of up to £37,000

The indignation is, of course, completely ludicrous and perfectly stage-managed to create more of a stir online. Sure, it’s outrageous to be charged £44 for four cans of Red Bull, but it’s also outrageous to think Red Bull is a suitable drink with a steak. And if you’re buying bottles of Petrus and tomahawks encrusted in gold, and your mathematical skills are so deficient that you can’t calculate that your bill is going to be £6k higher than the average annual UK salary, that’s hardly on Salt Bae is it?

In his restaurant review this week, Guardian food critic Jay Rayner tore Nusr-Et apart from the outside. Having declined to dine there, instead he took his own table, chair, chequered tablecloth and takeaway kebab to eat on the pavement out the front of the restaurant. Not just any kebab, I should add, but an £8.50 donner from Kebab Kid in Parsons Green. An excellent choice; they do make the finest kebabs I have ever tasted! 

Having noted that gold, being the least reactive metal of all, tastes of literally nothing, Rayner concludes his review

‘There is a 1976 essay on the end of empires by the fabulously named General Sir John Glubb which is instructional here. He posits that empires move from affluence to decadence easily, and then collapse. Sitting at my picnic table holding one of Kebab Kid’s finest, I wonder whether we are now teetering on the edge. After all, as well as tasting of nothing, all that gold leaf will pass straight through the body. So let me leave you with this image: Salt Bae’s customers, the morning after the night before, getting off the throne, looking down and clocking that all their money has bought them is a bunch of glittering turds.’

If that turn of phrase is a little grotesque for your taste, it’s worth noting that Jay Rayner is not the first Jewish author to employ this particularly striking visual image. There is a far more literal precedent in the life of Moses.

In Exodus 32, the newly formed nation of Israel has been given the terms of the covenant with their God – often known as the Ten Commandments – beginning with the instruction that they should have no other gods before YHWH, and that they should make no idols for worship. Moses goes up a mountain, and the people get frustrated that he’s been away too long, so they ask Aaron to make some new gods, thus breaking the very first laws God gave them! 

And like the signature dish at Nusr-Et, their idol is quite literally a gold encrusted cow! A calf made out of their melted jewellery, around which they dance, celebrate, and feast. There is nothing new under the sun. 

When God discovers what the people have done, He wants to destroy them, but Moses intervenes and pleads for mercy, until He relents. Then upon coming down the mountain, Moses,

‘took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.’

Exodus 32:20

Opinions differ on why Moses did this. Perhaps it is somehow related to the strange ritual in Numbers 5:12-31, where a woman suspected of adultery is made to drink a mixture of water and dust in order to determine whether she is innocent or guilty. But I wonder if it isn’t more simple? Moses’ judgment ensured that the people didn’t simply feast in the presence of their idol, but had to feast on the idol itself. Drinking down cans of £11 Golden Bull. This would shame the idolaters, making them sick to the stomach, and would also shame the idol by making this ‘god’ pass through the bowels of his subjects! 

The morning after the night before, the people of Israel would look down and see that the wealth they plundered from the Egyptians, and the handmade god they had worshipped was nothing more than a bunch of glittering turds.

All of this – Salt Bae, Moses, and the fact that humanity has been making the same stupid mistakes for millennia – has me thinking about foodolatry.

Although I dislike the term, I would consider myself a foodie. I love to cook. I have shelves full of recipe books, and I’m the kind of person who reads them cover to cover and logs them on Goodreads. I love to learn the intricacies of new cuisines. I was baking sourdough and shamelessly posting it on Instagram years before it was a pandemic-pastime. I believe the artisan food movement represents a yearning for Eden. I love to eat out, and would probably do it more if finances allowed. I appreciate the hard work and skill that goes into producing flavoursome and innovative dishes, whether in a Michelin-starred restaurant, or – more often – in the form of down-to-earth street food. The most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten was at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, which was an amazing experience, and one I saved up for for years! But I’m not sure I’d do it again… 

Because I am increasingly aware how easy it is to casually Instagram an image of a single meal that costs what a family of four may have to live on for a week. And when we do that, what is it we’re really celebrating? Is it the food, or the status that comes with having eaten that dish, cooked by that chef, in that restaurant? I fear a lot of what I previously considered ‘being a foodie’ may really be foodolatry.  

To be clear, I don’t begrudge people the delight of eating at high end restaurants. It can be a real joy! (Although I don’t think I could ever justify eating a £1,000 hunk of gold-encrusted meat, financially or ethically. And yes, I probably do judge people who are lining up to dine at Nusr-Et!) I also know that a lot of top restaurants need to charge high prices, since many of them run at or close to a loss, due to the quality of ingredients and the time and effort that goes into making the dishes they serve. What’s more, the hospitality industry has suffered hugely through the pandemic, and one of the greatest joys for people recently has been the opportunity to sit around a table in a restaurant again. As I’ve written elsewhere, the table is a powerful symbol. I don’t want to make anyone feel guilty for that!

But I think foodies need to wrestle with our privilege. We need to ask ourselves what it means to be a foodie in an age when the Foodbanks are heaving? And where is the line between foodie and foodolatry? The way we answer that question will be different for everyone. For me at least, the line has probably moved over time. It has changed according to my stage of life, my level of disposable income, how much of my wealth I am able to give away, and also the state of the world – both the needs of the planet and those who inhabit it. Things I used to enjoy freely, I now struggle to justify quite as easily. 

So for me, given the season of life I’m in, the pain of the world around me, and the great needs of others, being a foodie looks different to how it did previously. Right now it looks like using my passions and skills to cook creatively, healthily and responsibly. Working harder to learn how to shop better, cook delicious food with sustainable ingredients, and get my food waste down to zero. And also supporting other chefs and restaurants that seek to do the same. It means passing on my skills and passions to others, and teaching them to cook. It means opening my table far and wide, sharing meals with others, as an expression of love, and hospitality, whether or not it’s on trend or Instagram worthy. 

And it means I won’t be visiting Salt Bae’s temple for a medium-rare golden calf steak. After all, as another Jewish food critic wrote:

‘Better a small bowl of vegetables served with love, than a steak served with hatred.’

Proverbs 15:17

If you found this post helpful or thought-provoking (even if you disagreed with it!) chances are someone else you know may do too. So please take a moment to share it on social media. If you would like to support me further, please consider buying me a coffee via my ko-fi page.

Photo by Emerson Vieira on Unsplash

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