Video of Salt Bae Serving Communist Leader Gold Steak Prompts Anger in Vietnam

A celebrity chef showed the meal in a TikTok video, now removed, that angered people in Vietnam. Facebook said it was investigating why the chef’s hashtag was blocked from its site.

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A top Communist Party leader from Vietnam was in London last week visiting the grave of Karl Marx, the philosopher whose writing championed the proletariat fight to topple the ruling moneyed class.

While there, the official, Gen. To Lam, also ate steak covered in 24-karat gold flakes at a restaurant run by the social media star and restaurateur known as Salt Bae, according to a video that the chef posted online but that swiftly disappeared.

Many details of the meal were unavailable, including who else was in attendance, what the total cost was and who ultimately paid for it all.

But the short-lived video of it incited anger in Vietnam, where it appeared to undermine the egalitarian image the Communist Party has studiously cultivated.

The video also put Facebook, the social media platform that often faces pressure from the Vietnamese government to censor content, under another unwelcome spotlight. The widely used hashtag for the chef — #saltbae — was temporarily blocked on Facebook.

Meta, the newly renamed parent company of Facebook, said in a statement that the #saltbae hashtag was unblocked on Tuesday and that it was investigating why it had been blocked.

What is known about the meal largely comes from Salt Bae’s video, which was taken down from the chef’s TikTok account, followed by nearly 11 million. It provided an unwelcome image in Vietnam, at a time when the pandemic has strained so many people.

“It paints a sharp contrast about the disparity in living standards in Vietnamese society,” said Chinh Duong, an architect in Hanoi and a political commentator. “Especially during the recent epidemic, when the budget is exhausted and the working people are struggling for survival — such a lavish party of officials is offensive.”

General Lam, who is Vietnam’s minister of public security, was visiting Britain for a global summit on climate change in Glasgow, and led a trip on Nov. 2 to the grave of Karl Marx, according to a news release from the ministry.

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Gen. To Lam, Vietnam’s minister of public security, in 2019.Credit…Hein Htet/EPA, via Shutterstock

While in London, the visitors “paid respect to those based on whose theories the Vietnamese people overthrew systems of oppression ruled by colonialists and imperialists,” the ministry said.

General Lam also visited the London restaurant run by Nusret Gokce, who is known to his millions of followers on Instagram and TikTok as Salt Bae as much for his food as his flare: black sunglasses, white shirt, elbow bent as salt falls like snowflakes from his gloved and twinkling fingers.

The meal appeared to include 24-karat gold tomahawk steaks, which according to the British newspaper The Guardian, can cost as much as 850 pounds, or $1,150.

And, as Mr. Gokce has done numerous times before, he served the guest who ordered the golden steak, and posted a video of it on TikTok.

Although the video was quickly taken down from Mr. Gokce’s account, some people copied it and posted it elsewhere. In one video on YouTube, Mr. Gokce serves three gold-covered steaks to a table of men as several people look on with delight.

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At one point, the video shows Mr. Gokce delicately balancing a slice of steak at the end of a long knife. He dangles the knife across the table and puts the steak into the open mouth of a seated man. The man bites the steak and, apparently satisfied with the offering, raises his right hand and gives the chef a thumbs up.

Mr. Gokce did not immediately respond to a direct message sent on TikTok requesting comment. The Vietnamese government could not immediately be reached for comment.

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Nusret Gokce, the social media star known as Salt Bae, at his restaurant in New York in 2018. Credit…Cole Wilson for The New York Times

When asked, Facebook would not say whether the hashtag had been restricted regionally or globally. Facebook is widely used in Vietnam and the government has at times strategically cut access to it ahead of planned protests, and has asked both Facebook and YouTube to help it eliminate fake accounts and “toxic” content, like anti-government material, according to the local newspaper Tuoi Tre.

Reuters, which first reported the hashtag block, said TikTok users in Vietnam who searched for the video were informed that it had been removed from the app for violating “community standards.”

Still, news of the ironically luxurious meal circulated widely on social media and ignited a fierce backlash.

“What we see is just the tip of a very large iceberg,” said Pham Minh Vu, a blogger and dissident. “Everyone knows that Vietnamese officials are very corrupt, so when they see such an incident, they use it as an opportunity to express their anger.”

Luu Trong Van, the famous Vietnamese writer, said the opulence of the meal was jarring, as was the length of time the story had circulated. “The strange thing is that the story has been hot for several days,” Mr. Van said. Normally government censors can squash an unflattering story “within a few hours.”

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