Instagrammer Michael Zee’s symmetrical breakfasts, huge in Hong Kong – how they became an internet sensation
Zee started out photographing his breakfasts and posting them online. Now, with more than 760,000 followers, it is his full-time career and he has written a cookbook. He talks about his inspirations and the future of Symmetry Breakfast
Every morning, Michael Zee prepares breakfast for his husband Mark van Beek in their apartment in Shanghai’s former French Concession. After carefully plating every element, he takes a symmetrical photo of their plates and posts it on his Instagram account, which has more than 760,000 followers.
This is how Symmetry Breakfast (@symmetrybreakfast) was born in 2013 in East London. More than 1,400 breakfasts later, managing the account has become Zee’s full-time career and encouraged him write a cookbook that has been published worldwide.
“It just started very naturally. I was cooking every morning and then I randomly started taking pictures for fun and sharing them on my personal account when something looked particularly pretty,” the Briton, in his early 30s, says during a recent visit to Hong Kong to sign copies of his book, SymmetryBreakfast: Cook-Love-Share.
Little did Zee know that what started as a daily act of love to spend at least 30 minutes with his partner would make him a social media sensation.
When Zee cooked breakfast in Hong Kong – the city with his second-largest following after London – rather than make congee and milk tea, he conjured up baghrir – a Moroccan and Algerian pancake. With the help of friend Dana Elemara, who exports pure argan oil to the city, he did what he’s been doing for the past four years: cooking outside the box.
Among the multitude of accounts for lovers of food porn on Instagram, Symmetry Breakfast stands out for its combination of sophisticated global dishes and stylish plating, with inspiring breakfasts that go beyond, say, avocado smashed on toasts and acai bowls.
“When I was living in London I didn’t make much British food, I was very aware that I wanted to make things from all over the world. It was about this notion of ‘the others’,” Zee says.
Kimchi omelette, Turkish cilbir, okonomiyaki, madeleines and huevos flamenco are just a few examples of the thousands of recipes he has posted on Instagram. Over the years, Zee and van Beek have pretty much brought the world to their dining table.
“Instagram really gives the impression of how connected our world is. I feel very fortunate to have a very global following. These are the positives of globalisation,” Zee says.
From the very beginning, “so many people asked things like: ‘when is it going to be Singapore’s turn? When are you going to cook Turkish, Nigerian or Brazilian?’,” he says.
The international potential of Symmetry Breakfast became even clearer when Zee landed his book deal.
Soon after it was published a little over a year ago in Britain, it was adapted for the American and Canadian markets. This February, it was translated into Chinese and published in Taiwan, the region that is home to Zee’s second-largest following.
Even though Instagram is officially blocked in mainland China, when Zee relocated from Britain to Shanghai to follow his fashion designer husband seven months ago, he was surprised to see that the account was also popular there.
“The China market loves [Symmetry Breakfast],” Zee says proudly. “Probably because in the mainland there is no lifestyle culture, and Chinese are still very much of the attitude that money equals luxury, there was no concept of something beautiful and home-made, but it’s really changing.”
Symmetry Breakfast’s move to China couldn’t be more perfectly timed. As the era of Chinese excessive spending on luxury appears to be drawing to a close, a new generation of urbanities and millennials is becoming increasingly attracted to concepts that don’t necessarily associate money with style. The food industry – or rather pretty food as a symbol of the new cool – is booming.
“I love Shanghai. It’s quite fascinating to be in China now,” Zee says. And Shanghai loves him back. A five-minute video of Zee cooking made by Shanghainese online content producer YiTiao garnered more than 20 million views within a day.
Popularity and a rapid increase in followers, however, are not the only reasons why Shanghai is proving to be a good move for Symmetry Breakfast.
“The first few months I was kind of driven to be creative within confinement; I realised that it’s always a good thing for creativity to have restrictions,” Zee says, recalling how he made a quiche and a cheesecake in a rice cooker.
To remain truthful to the account’s original concept, moving to China hasn’t turned Zee’s breakfasts into an exclusively Asian affair.
“I was suddenly surrounded by more Chinese, Japanese and Korean ingredients than ever before. And now I’m suddenly more fixated on European, Middle Eastern and American food,” he says.
And while Shanghai’s status as a global, cosmopolitan metropolis makes it easy to find most ingredients, the challenge of finding fresh herbs and spices from around the world remains one of Zee’s inspirations to create new dishes.
“I can easily go out and find durian – but where is the fun?,” he says.
Zee’s breakfasts are carefully planned. Every component, from the assorted ingredients and spices, to the choice of plates – which are often handmade by friends – and the colour contrasts that make the photos Instagram-perfect, is thoroughly researched.
“I post every single day and there are people that look religiously. It’s like school, you learn every single day,” Zee says, explaining the strategy behind his success.
Yet it wasn’t always easy to understand how the social-media platform worked.
“As I only opened the account when someone suggested I do something with the pictures, I didn’t understand how to use hash tags or the analytics behind what to write,” Zee recalls.
It was only when he learned that the key was to understand human behaviour, Zee says, that the account became popular, but he never imagined that it was going to be his full-time occupation.
Although Zee was not a professional chef when he started the account, Symmetry Breakfast is a synthesis of his story.
Growing up in the bustling environment of the Chinese restaurant his Shanghainese grandfather opened after immigrating to Liverpool, northern England, in the 1940s, his love for food remained a constant throughout his life.
At the same time, taking pictures with his father – a former British army photographer – and being manager of educational programmes at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the job he left in 2015 to dedicate himself to cooking breakfasts, shaped his devotion to detail and aesthetics.
“My professional background has always been image making and helping people to learn,” Zee says.
“That’s part of my personality. Even when I wrote the book, and all the cultural references, I tried to do it as precisely and clearly as possible, for people that have no understanding of food to understand, for it to be accessible for everyone from North Africa to Malaysia.”
Symmetry Breakfast’s followers have also become affectionate fans of Zee and van Beek’s life together, but it wasn’t always the case.
Before revealing his identity, Zee remained anonymous for his first 500 posts, with the account tagline “for my boyfriend and me”.
“Many thought that I was a woman because of the stereotypical image of a woman making food for her man. That’s why I decided to take a more active role and share more of my life: tell people who we are, that we are a gay couple,” Zee says.
As a gay couple in Shanghai, Zee says, he and van Beek feel very free. “People just don’t care, but as an expat I don’t feel the same pressure as my Chinese friends,” he adds.
Although Zee has quickly come to appreciate Shanghai’s ever evolving cosmopolitanism and is happy that the city is going to be his home indefinitely, he believes the fact that “no one is bothered [by gay rights] is almost as bad as opposing them”.
Zee wonders what the future will hold for Symmetry Breakfast. “A few years ago, Instagram didn’t even exist, and now my whole career revolves around it. There is going to be even more competition for people’s time and energy, that’s for sure, and I don’t know how I am going to survive in this ecosystem of social media that is so fragile,” he says.
For now, Zee and van Beek will continue to enjoy their symmetric breakfasts every morning, showing how an act of love can make everyday life more colourful – and tasty.