Books I’m Cooking From Now: Michael Zee of SymmetryBreakfast

January 9, 2017

Michael Zee is known for global cooking, but his secret obsession? American cookbooks. Photo: Anthony Gerace

Three years ago, on what was just any another morning, Michael Zee was in his London flat making salami-and-avocado omelets for breakfast with his partner, Mark. After plating the dishes side by side, he realized they were beautifully symmetrical. He took a photo, posted the picture to Instagram, and @SymmetryBreakfast was born.

More than a thousand inventive and symmetrical breakfasts later, Zee now has over 650,000 Instagram followers and a lush new cookbook based on his feed, SymmetryBreakfast: 100 Recipes for the Loving Cook (powerHouse).

The globally inspired recipes in SymmetryBreakfast, like Portuguese egg custard tarts and South Indian fermented rice pancakes, are all photographed on Zee’s iPhone. “I’ve always used an iPhone right from the beginning” says Zee, a photography major turned museum educator turned full-time breakfast maker, of his minimal approach.

While he doesn’t have any formal culinary training, cooking has always been a part of the Londoner’s life. “When I was growing up, my family owned several Chinese restaurants and takeaways in Liverpool,” he says. “My grandfather emigrated from Shanghai during the Second World War and opened up shop. I learned to be comfortable in kitchens from a young age.”

Of course, comfortable doesn’t always mean tidy.

“The truth is that beyond that single framed images of breakfast I’m actually a terribly messy person,” he admits. “It drives Mark insane, but secretly I love a bit of chaos.”

It seems Zee is full of surprises. Despite the global focus of SymmetryBreakfast (in the book and online), one of his biggest passions is American cuisine. Here, he shares his latest obsessions.

Lucky Peach Presents Power Vegetables!: Turbocharged Recipes for Vegetables with Guts

Lucky Peach Presents Power Vegetables

Zee’s favorite contemporary cookbook, Lucky Peach Presents Power Vegetables!, makes veggies the star. While Zee finds himself cooking quite a bit from the book—the guasacaca, tempura green beans, and elotes are favorite recipes—he’s most drawn to the writing, done by the editors of Lucky Peach magazine, with editor-in-chief Peter Meehan at the helm. “What’s most compelling is his manifesto at the start, listing what the book won’t do,” Zee says. “I felt very much the same writing my own book; if you wanted to know how to make avocado on toast then you’re in the wrong place.” ($35, Clarkson Potter)

The First American Cookbook: A Facsimile of “American Cookery,” 1796

American Cookery by Amelia Simmons

For an early look at U.S. culinary history, Zee turns to his copy of American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, originally published in 1796. “It has the first recorded recipe for turkey with cranberry and made use of key local ingredients like cornmeal,” he says. “It continues to make me ask questions about how food exists today.” It’s a line of questioning that propels SymmetryBreakfast forward. Why do we eat what we do for holidays and certain occasions? “Where did they come from?” Zee asks. “What was it like before the invention of that ingredient or the discovery of that vegetable?” ($5.95, Dover)

White Trash Cooking

White Trash Cooking Cookbook

Zee still cooks from his spiral-bound copy of White Trash Cooking, first published nearly 30 years ago. Sure, he’s into perfectly plated breakfasts, but the lowbrow recipes in this cookbook are part of his repertoire, too. And don’t be fooled by the cheeky title. “I grew up in a working-class home, and I feel that this book takes a serious look at a particular subgroup that would otherwise be forgotten,” he says. “Food writers often glamorize peasant cooking from France or Italy, but not from the U.K. or U.S. This book includes recipes, but it’s also anthropological—it examines the relationships between people and place. In this case, the Deep South.” ($16.99, Ten Speed Press)

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