Interview: Instagram Influencer Symmetry Breakfast
Created for Flavour Feed.
By Ashleigh Togher
I dare you not to like Michael Zee of powerhouse Instagram account Symmetry Breakfast. Half standout, half understated, his magnetic warmth and likeability blends beguilingly with his entertaining, razor-sharp rhetoric.
‘Newspapers and traditional media need people like me – people in social media, bloggers, Instagrammers – more than ever’
He’s also full of surprises. As someone with, at the time of writing, 645k Instagram followers and counting, I had expected him to be slightly more pious about the platform that made him famous, but an almost academic level of analysis is never far for this former art-history teacher and educational officer at the V&A.
‘I was looking at the Instagram scene in New York and a lot of it is just trash, like garbage food or another thing covered in cheese or another pizza. These people’s fanbases are massive, but their offer is so repetitive and they don’t have a concept or a story. They’re not autonomous – they rely on something else. They’re simply feeding off someone else’s work.’
‘I buy whole trollies of food without any specific intention. And let me show you my plates – I’ve thousands!’
But Symmetry Breakfast is different. Zee wakes up at 5am each morning and creates his own content – a masterful, globally inspired symmetrical breakfast for him and his partner Mark. To date, that’s 1,096 breakfasts – each one entirely unique. Creativity to envy, eh?
It seems Zee’s creativity is linked to an insatiable curiosity, leading him to delve into vintage cookbooks, research little-known corners of the globe, use ingredients he knows nothing about and glean inspiration from art and film. His well-stocked kitchen comes in handy too. He shows me photos on his phone with pride, ‘I buy whole trollies of food without any specific intention – lots of dry goods, canned goods… When I’m on holiday, I buy an extra suitcase. Let me show you my plates – I’ve thousands!’
Not one for shoot lists and schedules, Zee’s approach to cooking his famous symmetrical breakfasts is highly intuitive, based instead on mood and what he has to hand. It’s a style that allows him to be decidedly reactive – keep your eyes peeled for a Trump-inspired US-election breakfast in the coming days that is likely to include yellow candyfloss to parody that infamous hair.
And though he shudders at the term ‘Instagrammable’, Zee is in no denial about his value, or the power of social media. ‘Newspapers and traditional media need people like me – people in social media, bloggers, Instagrammers – more than ever, because when I say, “I’m in this week’s Guardian, so go and buy it,” my followers think, OK, I like Symmetry Breakfast. I will, and they sell far more copies. So it’s a relationship, and we need each other because they give people like me the reputability, but I sell copies of papers.’
It’s fair to say that Symmetry Breakfast is unique in the publishing world. Zee’s debut cookbook Symmetry Breakfast: Cook-Love-Share, published in July, features only iPhone imagery and is bursting with collaborations – complete with Instagram-handle credits – in a decisive veer away from the modern cookbook tradition.
‘There’s this expectation now that there will be a linen cloth and an artisanal spoon and a hand, and a basket of vegetables from the market, and that everyone will be holding food and laughing, and it’s so contrived. It doesn’t make me feel different – I don’t feel any more involved. It’s all bull—t.’ Zee’s cookbook, in contrast, is an extension of his Instagram account – without a woven basket in sight.
As the conversation moves to trends, Zee seems simultaneously aghast and amused at the decline of clean eating, and the scramble of high-profile clean-eaters to disentangle themselves from the wreckage. He cites hilarious-but-respected industry blogger Angry Chef and his recent Clean Eating is Dead proclamation (a must-read) and the astounding statistic that a Deliciously Ella energy ball contains double the calories of a Scotch egg. ‘A lot of this is complete garbage. Any one of us could get a qualified health-nutritionist certificate on the internet. You can get them on Groupon for £10 in about an hour. You fill out an online form and you’re certified. It should be banned.’
‘Their fanbase is massive, but their offer is so repetitive and they don’t have a concept or a story. They’re simply feeding off someone else’s work’
In contrast, Zee’s world is too diverse to belong to any sort of food sub-culture. In media and in food, he is a boundary-blurrer, making the foodie and branding buzzword ‘authenticity’ contentious for him and his at-times territorial audience. Churros, for example, are a sore subject.
‘Yesterday, I put up pictures of churros. They eat churros in loads of countries, yet three commenters said, “Churros are from Spain, not Mexico!” But they’re not exclusively Spanish. However, if you want to go down that road…’ He grimaces.
As a quarter-Chinese half-Scottish gay man with Liverpudlian roots and a Dutch, Italian-speaking fiancé, Zee has long been at odds with what’s expected. ‘If you’re gay and working class, it’s difficult to put yourself in the typical box. Or you’re from the North West but you live in Liverpool yet you don’t like football and then people don’t want to chat to you. Or you say “I’m from Liverpool” and people say, “Well, you don’t have an accent” and then it’s like well, what? OK, I’m not from Liverpool then.’
The result is an outlook and a body of work that exudes freedom. ‘If you ignored national borders and cultural appropriation of food and just went with flavour, what would you come up with?’ he ponders. Probably something a lot like Symmetry Breakfast.
FF: You know your breakfasts aren’t entirely symmetrical, right?
MZ: It’s wabi-sabi – the appreciation of the beautiful in the imperfect. It’s a Japanese thing – they make a bowl and then make it wonky, or when they break one, they glue it back together with gold, meaning the crack is highlighted and rendered beautiful because of the human element. It’s not perfect, but it’s near-perfect. I want people to know it’s not just mirrored, though – that’s the point.
FF: Any food-styling tips for the aesthetically challenged?
MZ: The number-one thing? Do it in natural light. No one wants to eat in the dark. You have to think about the table, the surface, the lighting – they’re all just logistical things that are in your power to change. And it’s a case of doing your research; you have to look at stuff and think, why is that so good and why is that not so good? It’s OK not to like things.
FF: What are your favourite places to get inspired?
MZ: One of the most interesting was Hawaii. My initial reaction was that it was horrible, because it’s like Vegas-on-Sea and not your typical foodie destination, but there are so many diverse cultures that the food’s fascinating – there is a Portuguese heritage, a British heritage, American…
FF: Annd, finally, can you offer any advice on how to grow an audience?
MZ: You have to be willing to make sacrifices. I get up an hour earlier! I’ve sacrificed an hour of sleep every day for three years – that’s like a thousand hours of sleep!