The creator of the soothing Instagram phenomenon with 700,000 followers, Symmetry Breakfast, talks to us about his rise to cookbook fame and life in Shanghai.
I’m Michael Zee, 32-years-old from London and I’m a quarter Chinese. My husband Mark and I have been together for five and a half years. We met in 2012, and got married earlier this year. We moved to China I think... two weeks
after we got married. We actually met at a Whitney Houston memorial party, because she died the week that we met, and a nightclub in London was playing her whole discography. He was working at Burberry as a Senior Designer for their men’s runway shows, and I was working at Tate Britain
— they were right next to each other on the river. Shortly thereafter, I got a job at the Victoria Albert Museum
managing the school programs there. We moved into Xuhui, right on Hengshan Lu and Donping Lu. This entire complex is filled with retired Chinese Generals.
We’re a pair of foreigners among four in the entire compound... it's quiet
being just across the road.
Food photos with this article from the Symmetry Breakfast Instagram
How did Symmetry Breakfast get started... Well, a year later, we moved in together, and converted one of the bedrooms into a dining room. It was quickly apparent that Mark would work all the time. It was 2012 when Burberry was the number one fashion house in the world, so he was doing 18-hour days, seven days a week, six weeks in a row leading up to the runway shows, so I never saw him. So, I would be cooking and having dinner ready so when he’d come home, he’d have something to eat. Then I started making breakfast, and you know, having that 30 minutes in the morning to talk with him and hang out and chat, that was the relationship for six months.
Progressively through cooking things, I started trying new recipes and nicer things. First it was like “this coffee isn’t that good, what’s the nicer brand of coffee, what’s the best way to make this nice brand of coffee?”
Then it evolved into, “okay, I’m going to start making my own bread” and then it went on into pastries, and it evolved into practicing constantly. I would take photos on occasion, and then one day by accident, I put both plates on the table, it looked symmetrical, and I thought “oh well, that’s sweet” and I took a photo and posted it on Instagram.
I did that for four or five months, people would begin commenting saying, “oh this is so romantic, please stop it’s making me sick” and then there were others saying “oh ma gawd, so cute I love it”.
They were really terrible, I mean the early photos? Just awful, kind of naff. Then it was Mark’s boss that said, “I really like these images, I think you should turn it into something stand alone”.
This was ages ago, long before Instagram was owned by Facebook. I started it, on and off for a few months, and the first big thing that happened was Buzzfeed UK did a piece called 15 Perfectly Symmetrical Breakfasts
and I gained like, 1000 followers. It was maybe a couple of week’s later I went to a birthday party and I met this girl named Natacha Marro
, she is a really famous shoe designer in London. She does these shoes that are really sexy, burlesque, crazy shoes for people like Lady Gaga, Daphne Ginnis, and Dita Von Teese for stage shows and concerts. I showed her pictures, and she said, “Oh I love these, I’ll follow you." She had something on order of 10,000 followers, that was basically “wow” at that time. There wasn’t anyone who had one million followers; it just didn’t exist yet back then.
One of her customers, Kat Von D
, she’s this American, goth, vegan, burlesque, tattoo artist — a celeb basically — it was her that re-posted one of my photos saying, “I wish I was inside this girl’s brain” and overnight, I gained 20,000 followers. I didn’t know at the time, how to switch off notifications, so I basically just turned my phone off [laughs]. Then Instagram featured my account as a suggested one to follow a few times.
The biggest jump happened around Valentine’s Day. I was cooking breakfast when my mum texted me and said: “Jamie Oliver’s just featured you!” He posted two of my photos consecutively and it jumped up by 50,000 followers. From then, it was just a series of people who started following me, sharing, photos going viral, and eventually then it lead to a book proposal.
It was this massive battle between six publishers, which, it was great. I got a stellar offer, an advance of basically... two years of salary, and this was just for UK rights. Eventually, it turned into Spanish Publisher, a Chinese Publisher, an American publisher, and so on, and from every single one of those book deals, I got another advance. So... I’ve never been
so rich! [laughs], its all so quite surreal. [Ed's Note: Michael’s family grew up poor in Liverpool in the restaurant business which his Chinese grandfather started, Chippy’s Chinese].
I think one of the successes of Symmetry Breakfast
is that Mark is just happy to eat anything he’s given (within reason, of course). It’s amazing, we go to places that are really exotic, I mean bloody China for example. There is something about being in China and suddenly, after your first three months of eating all kinds of weird shit, you then suddenly settle in and then you realize that Shanghai offers so much more. London, for example, doesn’t have really great Mexican food. I think the Mexican food is better here in Shanghai. It's kinda interesting because its driven by the huge amount of American expats here. There are so many Americans, they’re not necessarily Mexican American, but Americans in general love Mexican food, and so there is a market to cater to here. And so all these experiences kind of helped shape the chapters in my first book, according to a clock. The idea being that, at all hours of a day, someone is eating breakfast somewhere in the world.
People ask me often, what do I hope to get out of your experience here. I think if you’re aware that Shanghai is, for most people temporary, that pretty much everyone at one point leaves, then you understand the city for expats. It’s a waiting room city
, I mean, the number of leaving parties you have to go to...
On the flip side, I like some things about Shanghai. When you are in London, you get sucked into this vortex thinking that London is the center of the universe, the most special place, cutting edge. But being here is so refreshing because there is so much innovation in China that’s completely unreported in the West. There’s also this cultural fine line between the notion of “authentic”, as in going to grittiest restaurants, with the shittiest service, and you say “I lived it, I endured it, I conquered it”, or do you go for the other end of the spectrum, like the Mercato
life, where every expat’s a fucking billionaire, and all they eat is Wagyu beef.
I’ll admit though, I like the standard-y places, I like Lost Heaven
, I like Wagas
, and Pirata
. I like Green & Safe
, but the service, its terrible (you can write that so they can see it [Laughs]. I love Garlic
— but it’s just very high-end, white table cloth dining. It’s not the kind of Turkish I am familiar with back home.
I went to Bhoomi Store
in Gubei the other day, that one Indian grocer in all of Shanghai, and I bought everything just on the off chance that I have something for a rainy day. That’s how I like to do my shopping. It’s opportunist shopping; when it’s there get it, because you might not get it tomorrow.
That’s what I’ve learned here, there’s a butcher, My Butchery
on Wulumuqi Lu, and all of a sudden, gone. That’s what I have come to realize in Shanghai, you have to take the opportunity while it’s there, cause next month, it may very well be gone.
But that’s also exciting about Shanghai, it keeps you on your toes. It’s a more pro-active attitude here, people will go to your parties, they’ll adjust schedules to hang out, and its lovely.
It makes certain that you get up off your ass, and go do something.