Michael Zee’s new book Symmetry Breakfast might be the first-ever cookbook to feature a marriage proposal on the dedication page. And the recipes that follow are similarly bold, nearly 100 globally inspired breakfast recipes organized by time zone, presented in the trademark style that earned him a cult following on Instagram: In every photo, there are two breakfasts—one for himself and the other for his partner Mark—reflected identically along a lengthwise axis.
Symmetry Breakfast began innocently enough in 2013 on Instagram as a way for Michael and Mark to carve out time together during demanding work schedules. But it quickly gained an international audience, and Michael’s book is the project’s newest evolution. With recipes that span many countries and cuisines, it’s testament to their voracious appetite for travel. When we met Michael and Mark, they were in New York for the launch of the US edition, sandwiching their meeting with us between reservations and activities, and during that meeting, they rattled off a long list of countries they’d visited in the past two years. “We’re very lucky,” Michael said, almost bashful.
As on his Instagram feed, where he posts in real-time and constantly interacts with his followers in the comments of his photos, Michael is eager to learn, talk, and engage. We spoke with him about how he translated his Instagram project into book, how his unconventional marriage proposal played out, and what his Last Breakfast would be if he had to choose.
First things first: What happened when Mark discovered your marriage proposal in the book?
I showed him the book a few days before the UK launch because it suddenly dawned on me that he might say no. I put the book on the dining table and I said, “It’s arrived!” “Oh, cool,” he said, “I’ve just got a phone call to make.” Then when he was done, he looked at it—looked at the front cover, looked at the back, held it, you know, did the smell thing—and then he put it down. “Maybe you should look at it more carefully,” I said. Then he realized I was hinting at something, and so he looked at the first page. There was a ten-second delay where he was reading the dedication, like, What? Whaaaat? I think he was just surprised that I’d done it.
You didn’t propose with a ring?
No, we weren’t interested in rings. And we’re not having a wedding as such, with a church ceremony on a day where we’ll get dressed up in a suit and walk down an aisle. Neither of us are Christians so why should we bother? Our dream is to rent a house in Italy, and rather than having a single day of ceremony we’ll have a six-week celebration. It’s going to be a chance for our family and friends to come and stay with us for a couple nights each, and then we’ll get to have a six-week holiday.
How much does being in a gay partnership factor into your feed?
Seventy-five percent of my followers are women. In a strange way they might know that we’re a gay couple, but I don’t think it changes anything about the food or the interest or the outcome of what I produce. I’m always surprised by the number of gay people who say, “I just found out you’re a gay couple!” “How long’ve you been following me?” I ask. “Like, two years.” Interesting. Before, in my bio, I just had the emoji of the little men holding hands. People didn’t read it or they didn’t quite look at it, and people would comment saying things like, “She’s so good to her man.”
Tell us about the experience of turning your Instagram project into a book.
Books are finite, they’re linear. Instagram is a daily digest—you get a single image, for the way I work at least, and it hops around the world. It made me really think about how to structure this thing. We were talking about doing it by ingredient, flavor, country, continent, this or that. At some point I realized that the nice thing with social media is you can see what people are eating in real time, say in Hong Kong. We have this immediacy, but we all still live within our time zones. That idea—that at any time of the day it’s breakfast time somewhere, not necessarily where I am—that’s how the book came to be organized by time zone. It starts in London. We actually live a hundred meters away from the Greenwich Meridian, which is “the center of time,” and that first chapter is a strip, from pole-to-pole, the UK, Portugal, Morocco, Nigeria. And New York, for example, is in the same time zone as Peru. Japan and Australia share a time zone. Organized this way, some cuisines have no connection at all, but others have some very surprising similarities.
Last question: What’s your ideal breakfast?
Definitely a cup of tea. Nice tea. And I’d go for the Shenjian Mantou, the steamed Chinese buns in the book. It’s a pork bun, like a bao, but when they make the bun they put pork gelatin in it. So when they steam the buns, the gelatin melts. It’s like a soup dumpling… but better.
For more information about Michael and Symmetry Breakfast, and to get your copy, visit his website.
Portraits by Steve Viksjo.