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In 2013, Michael Zee started making breakfast for his boyfriend, Mark van Beek. Mark was working “extortionate” hours at his job as a menswear designer and the two found their time together limited. Breakfast became a sacred time of day, when the two could bask in each other’s company for a while. One morning, Michael took a snap of their matching dishes on his iPhone and posted it online.
Three years, 800 breakfasts and over half a million followers later, Symmetry Breakfast has become one of the most recognised names on Instagram. Even the app’s co-founder, Kevin Systrom, recently named Symmetry Breakfast his favourite account.
Scrolling through the Symmetry Breakfast archives, it’s easy to see why the account has drummed up such global delight. Pimento waffles with caviar and dill, baked eggs with turkey and crème fraîche, madeleines with raspberries, squid ink bagels with beetroot juice, tear-apart cinnamon Danish pastry, croque madame with fries…each morning brings a dish more mouthwatering than the last. They are all cooked by Michael, who lives and breathes breakfast-time: “I go to bed thinking about breakfast.”
We visit Michael at his Dalston home, bright and early. He ushers us into the kitchen, where two spinach and cheese pides (a Turkish pizza of sorts) are resting on top of the oven. “Eat them!” he commands, as we eye them up like two deranged walruses. As we inhale the soft dough and creamy filling, Michael sets to work on the rest of our breakfast. He rustles us up two skillets of sweet potato frittata with creamy goats’ cheese and crispy sage, sprinkled with sea salt. He serves them with a hunk of E5 Bakehouse walnut bread, two little pots of toasted argan oil and a couple glasses of homemade carrot and apple juice. As we eat he tells us about his travels, his favourite places to eat and how he worked in his father’s Chinese restaurant while growing up in Liverpool. He is a force of energy, warmth and knowledge, his conversation interjected with the odd burst of throaty laughter. He is the perfect breakfast host. We conspire how to make him our best friend.
Michael describes the unintended beginnings of Symmetry breakfast: “We had all this space so we made a dining room and started sitting down to have proper breakfasts together.” Michael continues, darting around his small Hackney kitchen: “We’d have this amazing 40 minutes together eating and then he’d go to work. What you see now isn’t how Symmetry Breakfast started – to be honest it was just something I thought would be funny.”
“You can experiment when it comes to breakfast food,” Michael tells us. “It is the only meal of the day that can be both sweet and savoury.” As well as a nod towards their morning ritual, Michael uses Symmetry Breakfast to celebrate the vast diversity of breakfast foods around the world. “At any point in the day, it’s breakfast somewhere,” Michael says. “Food is a way into culture.”
He has experimented with everything – Basque country-inspired breakfast pintxos, Hawaiian-style toast with spam and papaya, Venezuelan sweet corn pancakes with shredded beef, Hong Kong egg waffles and North Indian chickpea dal with mango lassis. “The food of different cultures – not just countries – is something I want to talk about as much as possible,” he tells us.
Until recently, Michael – who has studied photography, worked as an art teacher and managed a high street sneaker shop – was working as an educational officer at the V&A. He was still working at the gallery when Symmetry Breakfast began blowing up. He is now in the process of filling up the pages of his first book, Cook-Love-Share, a collection of his most prized breakfast recipes. He says he takes very little notice of preachy food trends. “So many of the recipes in the book begin with ‘pre-heat your deep fat fryer’, and the two smoothies in there have vodka in them!”
Though his beauteous account may suggest otherwise, Michael is no snob when it comes to food. “I love a good greasy spoon. Sometimes Mark and I just want a burger at 9AM,” he says proudly. “My biggest Achilles heel is KFC. I think it’s quite disingenuous for people to be snobby about food when they’ve never tasted poor quality food.” He goes on to tell us that he was raised on boxed food, though his mother occasionally cooked from scratch: “There’s something nice about instant coffee and macaroni cheese out of a box.”
This is probably what is so attractive about the Symmetry Breakfast brand. Michael is as comfortable serving cornflakes (it was his breakfast of choice to celebrate hitting half a million followers) as he is serving homemade pulled pork buns with chilli honey, watermelon and emperor’s breakfast tea.
Surely there are anxieties attached to working in such a fluctuating medium as Instagram? “The internet is global, so it is full of differing opinions. It definitely cranks up the pressure,” Michael says. “There are a lot of eyes on you. You suddenly have a platform and it becomes political.”
With his Instagram account, which continues to grow in popularity with each day, Michael is proving the power of social media, sparking a love of breakfast time and again. Michael gets up every morning and prepares beautiful, creative dishes for his boyfriend. For them, Symmetry Breakfast is about displaying the colour, flavour and social importance of food, something they share every morning of the year. “I go to a lot of effort to make breakfast,” Michael says, clearing away the table. “Some days I nail it and some days it looks a bit shitty. But that’s life. Well, it’s my life! At the end of the day, Symmetry Breakfast is my diary. That’s what social media is about – recording the everyday.”
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