It used to be that the way for an amateur cook to get a cookbook deal was to reach out to publishers and pitch their idea, then wait for the reply – usually, a rejection. Now, thanks to social media, publishers are contacting popular Instagramers who are creating original content, and asking them if they are interested in writing cookbooks instead. A physical cookbook is a longer-lasting legacy than a social media account – it’s something that can be given to friends or loved ones, or handed down to younger family members. Michael Zee, 35, knows something about legacies – it’s one of the reasons the cook and photographer created SymmetryBreakfast: Cook-Love-Share , a 2016 book dedicated to his now-husband and based on his popular Instagram account that documented the meals the couple shared every morning. “At the start, I wasn’t really that interested,” he says of his book, “but, after sitting on the idea for a few months, I decided ‘Why not?’” Zee’s account, @symmetrybreakfast, has more than 715,000 followers. It features images of symmetrical breakfasts – most made by Zee, who moved recently from Shanghai to Bologna, Italy. Zee, who is half-Chinese and professes a weakness for jianbing (Chinese crepes), grew up eating Chinese food in Britain, and loves “researching the history of food and why things evolve”. 8 times influencers were robbed after flaunting their wealth online He says, “For me, the book was a chance to do a lot of things – and partly it was about legacy. I always thought one day social media will evolve, and maybe Instagram will go the way of MySpace and disappear or become irrelevant. A physical book would outlast all of that, I could look back on it in years to come and say I did something real.” Zee’s account was one of the first food-focused Instagram accounts to go viral when it was featured in a 2014 Buzzfeed article, and he gained 30,000 followers in the days after one of his posts was shared by US tattoo artist Kat Von D. “I was totally anonymous and everyone thought I was a doting girlfriend making food for her boyfriend,” he says. It wasn’t until a few years later that he took up content creation full-time. The process of bringing the SymmetryBreakfast cookbook to life took Zee nine months. “I had already done years of research and that was just poured into the pages. The main struggle was defining how the book would be split into chapters. It was decided to split the book into time zones – each being equal in size but a reflection that, at any given time, someone is eating breakfast. “I think if you are going to try one dish from my book, it has to be the Baghdad Special Eggs. It’s a 900-year-old recipe and a great example of how flavours, even over hundreds of years [old], can still be delicious.” Hong Kong resident Jen Balisi, 31, says the idea for her Instagram account, @indulgenteats, was to create, “indulgent, crave-worthy eats” for people to make at home. The Filipino-American food and travel content creator, whose account has more than 366,000 followers, says: “I was documenting all of these experiences and teaching myself how to cook for fun.” Balisi started food blogging in New York before she moved to Hong Kong four years ago. “I would promote my blog posts on my personal account and, as I gained followers, I eventually created a food-specific [Instagram account].” Like Zee, social media was pivotal to the creation of her book, Indulgent Eats at Home , which is scheduled for publication in the United States at the end of this year, and worldwide in early 2022. “I always had a dream of writing a cookbook,” Balisi says, “but it wasn’t until my publisher reached out to me after having followed me on Instagram for some time that I started conceptualising what that dream cookbook would actually be about. “Truthfully, I don’t think I would’ve been able to complete this cookbook if it weren’t for the pandemic. Being stuck in Hong Kong instead of travelling every weekend afforded me the time to be able to focus on cooking and writing.” Can I do more as a lawyer or as a content creator? This was a question I grappled with a lot during the pandemic and ultimately concluded that the answer was the latter Joanne Lee Molinaro The book, like her blog, pays tribute to Balisi’s Filipino heritage. “Filipino cuisine is still under-represented around the world, so it’s amazing to have the opportunity to showcase a riff on my mum’s chicken adobo and ingredients that are in our blood as Pinoys,” she says, using another word for Filipinos. “If I can get a total stranger to grow to love ube [purple yam] and bagoong [fermented shrimp paste], I’ll have done my job!” The book uses food to bring together what Balisi views as a world “seemingly more divided”. “I wanted to show how almost every culture has their version of breakfast, dumplings, flatbread, crispy rice, etc, with a focus on the dishes that have either trended on Instagram or gone viral on my own page.” The one dish Balisi would recommend from her upcoming book would be her #SpicyPeanutNoods (which is also on her IG account), “because they’re the easiest and most pantry-friendly dish that you’ll make again and again”. Another Instagramer who got a cookbook deal thanks to her IG posts is Joanne Lee Molinaro. Molinaro, a 42-year-old lawyer and writer of @thekoreanvegan, which has more than 541,000 followers, created her Instagram account in 2016 at the prompting of her then-boyfriend (now husband), who had recently become a vegan. “I followed suit a couple weeks later – reluctantly. Very reluctantly,” says Molinaro who was born, raised and lives in Chicago, Illinois. “As a way of encouraging me, Anthony said, ‘You’re The Korean Vegan! Your food is so good, you should start a YouTube channel called The Korean Vegan! I took his advice and started [posting on] YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.” In 2018 – when she had just 37,000 followers – she secured a book deal with a major publisher for The Korean Vegan Cookbook: Reflections and Recipes from Omma’s Kitchen , which will be published this month. In July 2020, during the pandemic, her TikTok account jumped from zero to a million followers in months – a feat repeated on Instagram, where the number of people following her account increased from 70,000 to 500,000 in under six months. Like Zee – who is very conscious of the messages he gets and “sensitive about issues surrounding creative ownership, cultural appropriation, giving back and being honest” – Molinaro feels a responsibility to maintain a relationship with her followers. “With this level of visibility certainly comes some pressure to continue producing high-quality content, to keep my community engaged, and to be as intentional and strategic as possible with the direction of The Korean Vegan ,” she says. The quality of her content is something Molinaro prides herself on and it played a pivotal part in landing her a book deal. “I think that my writing, as evidenced on both my blog and in the Instagram captions, had as much to do with it, if not more [than my follower count]. The editor’s comment when they read my proposal was, ‘Oh, she can write!’ That said, if I hadn’t started an Instagram account, there would have been no book deal. The key to becoming a top chef? It’s not awards, it’s Instagram fans “My book is now a direct extrapolation of my social media posts. Lots of Korean vegan recipes, my photos and a load of stories about my family.” Molinaro took about two and a half years to bring The Korean Vegan Cookbook to life as she wrote it around her full-time job as a lawyer. The pandemic was a challenge for Molinaro, who found herself isolated and working “pretty much all the time”. At the same time, the ability to work from home gave her constant access to her cameras and kitchen. As a result, she was able to devote more time to creating consistent content for the online community she had fostered. “I also think like many people, the pandemic has really made me think more about my impact on the world and what I want that impact to be,” she adds. “Can I do more as a lawyer or as a content creator? This was a question I grappled with a lot during the pandemic and ultimately concluded that the answer was the latter.” She announced on October 2 that she quit her job as a lawyer. The one dish that people should make from her book? Pecan Paht Pie. “It’s so easy, it’s intensely delicious, and it really represents The Korean Vegan: a meld of Korean and American flavours that’s completely plant-based.” Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .