How did Symmetry Breakfast start?
MICHAEL: Symmetry Breakfast all started when Mark moved in with me in April 2013.
When my old flatmate moved out, Mark and I decided to completely change the layout of flat so it felt fresh and properly ours. We got rid of a load of old furniture and bought new stuff. In the process we bought this lovely wooden dining table from somewhere on Broadway Market. I’ve always been a big host. Even in my old flat, which had no dining room, I’d host dinner parties, using a plank of wood on the double bed and make everyone sit round it on stools.
One Saturday morning, I prepared breakfast for us. I think it was just cereal and a coffee, nothing fancy at all. And when I put it on the table, noticed the two plates looked identical. I put it on Instagram, a part of me feeling smug and a bit twee about moving in with my boyfriend. It all started from there.
MARK: You even cooked breakfast the very first night we met.
MI: Oh yeah! We met outside East Bloc on City Road. I used to be a smoker and I was outside on my own. Mark was with a huge group of friends who were all smoking – he was the only non-smoker. So Mark just came up to me and said…
MA: “Hey, you having a good time? What’s your name?”
MI: And I was just like “who the fuck is this guy?” But about an hour later I ended up saying “you’re coming home with me!” The next morning I made Mark pancakes.
MA: Everything was authentic Dutch, the powder mix, the syrups, the powdered sugar…
MI: I’d been to Holland a year earlier and brought it back. I’d used all the stuff once and then totally forgotten about it.
MA: I was completely impressed! Basically by the first morning I knew he was a keeper.
MI: I don’t want to over romanticise it but it kind of started at that first breakfast.
Do either of you have a background in food?
MI: I don’t come from a food background as such but growing up my Dad owned Chinese restaurants, well, Chinese chippies really. I would often help him out working behind the scenes preparing food. I was chopping onions from eight years old but never thought I would go into cooking professionally.
These days, I’m really interested in taking different foods and cuisines and reappropriating them. It’s the twist that makes it interesting.
You were in Italy a few months ago. Tell us more about that trip.
MI: Yeah it was great. We were with a group of Instagrammers of various specialisms. It was called a Kaleidoscope Tour of Tuscany and each event was colour coded and styled aesthetically.
MA: Italian food culture is so diverse. How natives in Milan eat breakfast is totally different to those in Bologna, Florence, Rome or Naples. Every city has their own style.
MI: If you asked two Italians, one from the North and one from the South, “should you eat your pasta with a spoon or a fork?” they would have a war over it. Using your spoon to twist your spaghetti is considered blasphemy for some. These are all things we’ve learnt since starting Symmetry.
MA: We also recently travelled to India. On the day of our arrival, the Hindustan Times, one of India’s national daily newspapers, sent a journalist and photographer to interview us about Symmetry Breakfast. When the article was published two days later, we discovered they had written we were a gay couple. They had basically outed us in India! But of course no one says they are gay in India. You’re not allowed to kiss in public and they can throw you in jail if they find out you have sex. We just kept saying we were friends.
MI: We always get asked if we’re brothers!
MA: Every time we check into a hotel, we always get asked if a double bed is OK. I’ll often say, “we’re on holiday together…”
MI: …so we sleep together! Haha.
Why do you think Instagram is the social media platform that has provided you success. What is it about it specifically?
MI: I think because it’s visual. These days, food has to be Instagrammable. Food has to be fit for social media. Even if it tastes like crap, the first thing people do, often before they even eat the food, is put it on Instagram. Many chefs in London are aware of this fact, but many of them aren’t.
Very recently actually, Jamie Oliver started following us. It’s weird. First we got regular fans liking our account, then people in the food industry and over time the numbers build. Now were at the point where chefs and restaurants follow us. They use it to get ideas for new dishes. Everyone is always looking for inspiration, including myself.
What do you think it is about Symmetry Breakfast in particular that’s led to your success?
MI: I think there’s often a snobbishness with traditional food blogging. So many bloggers are all about the “scene” – attending the latest restaurant or bar opening for example. Their community is based solely on gluttony and consumption. There’s no giving involved and no story to tell.
I think the difference about Symmetry Breakfast is that it’s almost purely the opposite – it’s about giving to someone else and having a connection.
For me, you can’t call yourself a foodie if you only eat the crème de la crème of a city. You have to eat the crap. You have to enjoy a kebab, a KFC or a Findus Crispy Pancake occasionally. And you definitely can’t be snobbish about shopping at Lidl and Iceland.
I’m just glad we only have to do one photo a day and what we eat for lunch and dinner isn’t published on the Internet. The number of times we’ll have a Zinger Tower meal whilst watching Game of Thrones…
There’s also almost no styling involved with Symmetry Breakfast too. Although the food can sometimes be fancy, a lot of the time it’s super basic. We want people to feel like it’s accessible and it’s real.
MA: We do like beauty and aesthetics though. We do like a little bit of luxury. There was one moment a few months ago when we met the English artist, Grayson Perry. He was joking sarcastically about our middle-class appearance – our beards and our “rustic wooden table”.
MI: Haha. He brought us right back down to Earth!
How has your sexuality affected Symmetry Breakfast, if at all?
MA: Not so much Symmetry Breakfast itself but doing this we have noticed the food industry is generally quite a macho environment.
MI: I’ve never met a gay chef. But I do think sexuality is becoming less of a box. It’s becoming more plural, more open, more seamless. There’s less of a dividing line. It filters into all areas of culture and society.
For this reason, it doesn’t really matter if Symmetry Breakfast was run by a gay or straight couple. For a long time we remained anonymous online, which was quite interesting. People would automatically assume I was a girl.
How do you affiliate with the gay communities in London and how have they changed since you’ve lived here?
MI: The gay communities in London are a bit like individual villages. Every area is different and always in flux. When I first moved to London, Soho was a different beast to what it is now. You get your very institutionalised communities there. But like institutions of any kind, they come and go and times change. No gay clubs last forever. The Joiners Arms and The Nelson have gone but now there’s The Glory and multiple others.
MA: We actually know quite a few older guys within the gay community. When I see them I’ll often excuse myself, like “ah I’m sorry we don’t go out much anymore. You must think we’re so boring!” But many of them also say, “you know what, I don’t go out much anymore either.”
MI: People grow up and change. People talk about this shift in gay culture and I think a lot of it is to do with technology.
Someone asked me the other day if I thought social media was making us more stupid. I thought, “well no.” The people that can articulate conversation and write are still going to do that. They’re still going to write blogs or newspapers or books. They are never going to die out because of Twitter. But now social media has given people who can’t write huge amounts to become good at constructing stories within 140 characters.
Just because the pendulum swings one way doesn’t mean it won’t swing back. I think the gay scene is more resilient than people think. It isn’t just cabaret bars and bingo. And it never was anyway. That’s just the loudest part that makes the biggest noise.
How has your local neighbourhood influenced Symmetry Breakfast
MI: We couldn’t do it anywhere else. It all started here. Obviously there are other parts of the UK where food matters so much. We recently met a couple who live in Whitby in Yorkshire. They were like, “the food in Whitby is phenomenal!” It’s very ‘of the land.’ But the difference is that you can’t just pop out in Whitby and get some redcurrants or some figs. There are limitations to living in more remote parts of Britain.
Here we live next door to a 24hr Tesco. We’ve got a Vietnamese supermarket in one direction and a Brazilian butcher the other. You’ve got all sorts of coffee producers, an amazing Chinatown and Turkish supermarkets everywhere. All manor of different types of niche shops that sell the maddest things. Even our corner shop sells 5 different types of coconut milk!
What are your favourite places to grab breakfast in Hackney?
MI: We love Bird on Kingsland Road. The food is amazing and amazingly priced. Nothing on their breakfast menu is more than £5.
MA: We quite like Mess Cafe too.
MI: Oh yeah, I was gonna keep that a secret! Mess Cafe is a greasy spoon on Amhurst Road. Nothing on their menu is time sensitive. You can get a burger and chicken nuggets at 9 o’clock in the morning. Every drink comes in a mug. No flat whites or any of that shit.
MA: The other place we also love, which is the opposite to that is called Jones & Sons. It’s on Arcola St in Dalston.
The best latte art has to be Lyle’s in Shoreditch. The guy who works there is the best. It’s a great place for lunch too. If you go around 1pm, you get the most beautiful light.
Are there any brands or people you’d like to work with in the future? Any people you admire?
MI: Definitely Jamie Oliver. When I first saw him on TV like 15 years ago in The Naked Chef I remember thinking “who the fuck is this guy who keeps saying ‘pukka’.” But he’s taken that opportunity and built his empire and remained very giving throughout. He’s transformed school meals, he’s influenced government policies and now he’s got all these foundations that work with children about healthy eating. No other chef has done that. Nigella could have done that, Nigel Slater could have done that. None of them have done it in the way that he has.
Jamie Oliver’s a cool guy in my books. And he’s stopped saying ‘pukka’.
What do you think the next food trend is going to be?
MI: Food from the Balkans. Macedonia, Serbia and Former Yugoslavian countries are going to be really big this year.
What’s next in the pipeline for you guys?
MI: Tableware. We’d love to design our own range of tableware. A food magazine too.