For the creator of the runaway hit Symmetry Breakfast account on Instagram, the first meal of the day isn't just the most important; it’s also the most romantic and the most visually stunning. Since 2013, 31-year-old Londoner Michael Zee has whipped up extra-special morning meals for himself and his 41-year-old fiancé Mark van Beek by plating their food side by side in mirror-image symmetry, and documenting the meals on @SymmetryBreakfast. His 647,000-plus followers are treated to sumptuous daily photos that feature everything from an everything bagel to seven-grain French toast to Vietnamese pho to cardamom-flavored cream of wheat with candied chestnuts and oven-roasted plums on the side.
“It began when Mark moved in with me,” Zee tells The Feast about the a-ha moment that ultimately led to his social media success. “He was working at Burberry at the time and, in the run-up to fashion week, was never at home. The only time we got together was at breakfast, so I started making more of an effort to make it more special than just cereal.”
While @SymmetryBreakfast gives its followers their full-day supply of food porn (seriously, take one look at his feed and you’ll instantly get why he’s so popular), one thing it doesn’t give them is recipes to replicate his amazing creations, including the dozens of daybreak repasts he and van Beek have enjoyed in restaurants or on their extensive world travels. That’s where Zee’s brand-new cookbook, SymmetryBreakfast: 100 Recipes for the Loving Cook (powerHouse Books), comes in. The collection (out in the U.S. this week) emphasizes his love of international cuisine, with recipes for such delicacies as churros with ham and caramel dipping sauce, idli (south Indian fermented rice pancakes) and pastel de nata (Portuguese egg custard tarts). Zee likewise lends his time and talents to humanitarian fundraisers that highlight the links between food and culture, like a Syrian benefit brunch he’s hosting later this month in London for UNICEF.
Here, Zee tells The Feast how the project began and what it’s taught him about cooking, Instagramming and eating— online and off.
Why SymmetryBreakfast’s breakfasts aren’t 100% symmetrical:
Want to really appreciate Zee’s artistry? Lean in. “If you look very carefully at my photographs, you’ll notice that they are not perfectly symmetrical. I wanted people (the ones who noticed this) to see that it’s not just a mirror app, but also that the imperfections are actually quite beautiful.”
How blogging changed Zee’s travel habits for the better:
“It’s quite easy when you’re on vacation to wake up late and go have the hotel breakfast, which is often Continental, wherever you are in the world,” he admits. “SymmetryBreakfast means we get up early, jump in a cab and head to somewhere that has been recommended to us.”
Which breakfast abroad Zee remembers most fondly:
“I’ve only been to Japan once but the food sticks in my memory so vividly: Hot spring eggs, the indecipherable packaging and the beauty and ceremony in how it was served. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
How SymmetryBreakfast improved his relationship:
Zee’s Instagram success has actually compelled him to carve out time away from social media. “I think the most important thing is that Mark and I are on our phones probably less,” Zee admits. “I find it depressing when couples are out for dinner on their phones not talking to each other. I don’t do emails on weekends and I very rarely take my phone out with me in the evenings.”
The biggest difference between the SymmetryBreakfast blog and book:
Fans can expect more personal stories behind the recipes in Zee’s book, but that’s not all. “The book is organized by time zone,” he adds. “The idea is that somewhere in the world right now, someone is eating breakfast.”
How Zee’s vision of breakfast has changed:
“It has definitely changed how much I actually enjoy a complex recipe with lots of stages that challenges me,” he says. “When I was writing the recipe in my book for Injera, a fermented pancake from Ethiopia that can take up to four days to prepare, I did wonder if anyone was going to actually make it. But then I thought, even if it inspires just one person to go and try it in an Ethiopian restaurant, then I’m happy. It’s about going beyond your comfort zone and trying something new.”
Zee’s #1 tip for improving your food photography:
Believe it or not, Zee doesn’t suggest filters or other digital tricks; instead, he recommends going old-school. “If you want to take better photographs, my top tip is to start with a film camera,” he says. “There is nothing better to make you slow down and force you take time getting the perfect image than only having 36 shots on a roll.”
And his second-best way to improve your food photography:
“Don’t garnish all the time and don’t overdo it. Sometimes a martini doesn’t need anything at all.”
Michael Zee. Photo credit: Anthony Gerace.
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