Interview: Symmetry Breakfast
There's one place in Hackney where breakfast is not only the most important meal of the day, but totally knocks lunch and dinner off the menu. Just off Graham Road is the home of Michael Zee, the guy behind the immensely popular Symmetry Breakfast blog, which has been shaming everyone else's pathetic morning meals since 2013.
Michael currently has 130,000 followers on his Instagram account who lap up the daily pictures of the drool-worthy breakfast dishes he cooks up for his lucky boyfriend, Mark van Beek, all laid out in perfect symmetry before the couple tuck in.
As his range of global dishes has expanded over the years, so has the crockery it's been eaten off. But two things have stayed constant: it always looks delicious and each dish is always the mirror image of the other. We caught up with Michael - who works at the V&A - to chat about global breakfast tastes, his Valentine's Day brunch pop-up and just what time he has to get up in the morning to make his tasty creations.
When did you start making and photographing your breakfasts?
Michael: Well, we've lived here in Hackney since 2013, but before that, when I was living in Islington, Mark would stay at my house and we'd always have breakfast together. He's Dutch and like English people, they have very specific ideas about what breakfast is. For English people it's toast, fry-up or tea and there's a traditional way of doing it. It's also the same thing for Dutch people – they have this culture of bread, butter and chocolate sprinkles [boterham met hagelslag]. If you're not from that culture you see it as weird – like, people look at us and think: “Why would you eat so much meat for breakfast, all fried?” But then other people will say to the Dutch: “Why would you eat something with chocolate with it? That's like a five year-old's breakfast!” Anyway, we'd have breakfast quite a lot and sometimes they'd be super lavish. So when Mark moved in here, we rearranged the flat so we could have a dining room and one day I made him breakfast on the nice, new dining table and that was it.
What was the first breakfast you took a picture of?
I think it was muesli with fruit then juice and coffee. It was really basic, but I have this Danish wooden tray and the only way I could fit food on there in one go (so I didn't have to make multiple journeys) was to make it symmetrical. It was around April when I started doing it, so there was a lovely light in the flat, we had a lovely new room and it was like, “this is nice!” I don't even think I put the first picture on the internet. Then it just went on from there.
Have you always been big into breakfast?
I've always been a foodie, my dad, who's from Liverpool. was in catering in when I was younger and I remember working in kitchens from a young age. I'd always loved breakfast and as a kid I remember eating breakfast and, as a real treat, eating a fry-up on the weekend. I also remember eating massive amounts of Weetabix too – I couldn't get enough of them.
You've been cooking up some amazing dishes for almost two years now – have you ever repeated any?
There have been minor tweaks to some. It's getting to the point now where it's like: “How many variations to eggs Benedict are there?” - and there's loads!
Do you have to plan ahead, what with the food shopping?
Sometimes. I definitely have things in mind that I think I like the idea of. I saw recently a recipe for two ingredient pancakes that I like the look of...
The one with just bananas and an egg?
Yes! I was thinking that's an interesting twist, and it's Pancake Day next week. So there are certain events that I make the breakfasts around – for example Chinese New Year, which is coming up soon.
How do you have time to make such fancy breakfasts in the morning? Do you have to get up at the crack of dawn to make them?
I naturally get up pretty early, like 6am. Being horrendously organised helps too.
If we were to open up your fridge now, would it all be lined up, symmetrical and perfect?
No. Lots of things are a mess, but there's a system to the mess. My desk at work is a bombsite, but I always know where everything is.
What's your all-time favourite breakfast dish?
I prefer savoury, but Mark prefers sweet and that's the biggest division between us – but it's the English/Dutch thing again. I think where we meet is probably eggs Benedict, it's so good. I just got a copy of The Breakfast Bible from the guys who set up the London Review of Breakfasts and they've made it into a book and there's a whole section on the variations of eggs Benedict, like country Benedict, which is an American dish with scones and sausage gravy. I've had it before and it's delicious but a real artery blocker. But I think you always go with what's familiar for breakfast – it sets up your mood for the day.
Were you surprised with how successful Symmetry Breakfast has been?
Oh yeah, totally. Even now I get other bloggers emailing me going: “How can I do what you do?” I'm like, I didn't set out to do it. I certainly didn't set out to do anything with food, I mean, I've always loved food and cooking for other people, but I've been training for almost 10 years to be in the world of art and design.
Have you thought about turning the project into some sort of coffee-table book?
Yes – I'm in talks and I've had some meetings with publishers and literary agents. It's a complete minefield – how do you manage this world of publishing? It's a bit strange for me to be in that world now.
You're hosting a big Valentine's Day brunch this weekend – how did that come around?
I went to Mr Buckley's in October last year and I got chatting with Phil, the owner. I was thinking about doing an event at the time that fitted in with the idea of food and our relationship, so Valentine's Day was great. Then I realised that holding it at Mr Buckley's would be perfect. Personally, I'm not going to be cooking the 250 breakfasts, it will be the staff there, and I've created the whole menu.
What can we expect on the menu?
There's a few things I've made over the past month, but two of the dishes will be shakshuka and definitely some sort of waffle with chocolate.
What's next for Symmetry Breakfast?
I'm reading a lot about breakfasts around the world and I'm thinking about creating fresh ideas, and now I'm thinking, what actually is breakfast? Like, there's no such thing as breakfast foods or brunch foods, it's all just cultural appropriation, in every sense.
Is there any global cuisine you're interested in at the moment?
We went to China and Japan recently then we crossed the country to Nagano and their whole attitude is so different from anywhere else. For example, you have a board with lots of tiny dishes, just two bites each, and they're all completely delicious and contrasting. They take so much time appreciating things in such a delicate way.
Where's your favourite place to eat breakfast in the area?
The one place I haven't gone to on Symmetry Breakfast yet – almost as I don't want to give it away – and it's Mess Cafe. I love it, it's so good. It's a non-pretentious slice of Hackney.