With nearly 700,000 followers, SymmetryBreakfast (@SymmetryBreakfast) is one of the largest food accounts on Instagram. But for its owner Michael Zee, the renown came incidentally – this was a blog dedicated to love and the pleasure of preparing meals for his partner.
What started as a simple desire to feed his busy fashion designer boyfriend Mark Van Beek turned into a visual phenomenon marked by symmetrical precision, noticed by everyone from the Daily Mail to Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom, eventually landing him a book deal. These days, Zee dedicates himself to food remotely, and has followed Mark’s latest work opportunity to Shanghai.
As soon as Michael Zee walks into the casual Taiwanese breakfast eatery I’ve chosen as our meeting place, he greets me with a huge grin. He might be new in town but you’d never know it from SymmetryBreakfast, which has already begun showcasing a daily roster of local early morning delicacies.
“I can’t lie,” he says in his cheerful, almost Northern England accent, “I’ve been struggling to find places to go – I do feel a bit lost sometimes.” For Zee, however, time exploring his new city is one thing he has in abundance. “The advance from my book enabled me to quit my job,” he recalls. “Though the hard part was remembering and writing down all the recipes I’d used for the dishes.”
It wasn’t entirely new territory for the former museum educator. Having grown up in a culinary family of Chinese descent, he recalls childhood afternoons spent in the kitchens of the family restaurant. These days, Zee (transliterated from ‘Xi’) reflects on his move to his grandfather’s homeland in a section on his website called ‘Letters to Shanghai.’
But why symmetry, and why breakfast? Zee recalls a time 18 months into his relationship with Mark when he became extremely busy with his job at Burberry – early mornings became the only quality time the two could guarantee. “I wanted to do something nice for him, and cooking breakfast was something we had initially bonded over.”
Zee dedicated himself to learning colorful new recipes and capturing them on his iPhone (his preferred method of photography to this day.) “It was actually Mark’s boss at Burberry who told me I should make it its own thing, give it its own channel.”
The first ‘big break’ came from celebrity tattoo artist Kat Von D, who shared one of his photos with the caption: “I’d love to be inside this girl’s brain.” The shout out took him from a thousand followers to 20,000 and didn’t stop there. A feature in The Guardian followed, though the biggest boost came from Jamie Oliver. “My followers went up 40,000 in the morning alone. It’s quite shocking to have that happen to you; it can either destroy or motivate you.”
Clearly the latter occurred, and Zee took his breakfast game to an international level, preparing food from all over the world, particularly when traveling. “I think that’s what helped get me an international following – I’ve no interest in constraining myself to on-trend basics like avocado toast over food from different countries. You notice the engagement from people who come from there right away – which in turn got my book published in different regions.”
A simple, everyday format is another thing Zee insists upon, “Everything I show is made that morning and eaten by me and Mark; there’s no staging, waste or fake endorsements.”
Lucky Mark, we say, but their touching love story doesn’t end there. “I actually used my book to propose to him last year,” Zee recalls, having popped the question on the first page. “Waiting for him to open and read it was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done.” Naturally, Mark’s answer was a ‘yes,’ after all; the way to the heart is through the stomach.