Michael Hing: “I’d do a lap of Chinatown with this trolley filled with cases of cognac”

The comedian and Celebrity Letters & Numbers host on setting bok choy on fire, and and crying over his mother's cooking.

Celebrity Letters & Numbers host Michael Hing. Photo: Don Arnold

You grew up in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire in a Chinese-Australian family. What are some of your most formative food memories growing up?

None of them are good. My parents are both doctors, and both are terrible cooks. Mum tells this story about when I was six, we were at my grandmother’s house, and I thought we were going to have dinner there. But Mum said we were going home and she was going to cook dinner, and I cried. She said, “Why are you crying?” And I replied, “It’s because you’re the worst cook in the world!” Then she said, “I didn’t go through six years of medical school to cook food for you kids, alright?”

Would you consider yourself a good home cook?

When I was younger, like a lot of men, I was a bad everyday cook. One of the many unfair things about being a man is the cooking you’re trained to do is almost performative: slow-cooked meats, elaborate Mexican platters, home-made pastas, these very unnecessary special meals that you’d do once a month when friends come around, but are not helpful in terms of a home-cooking situation. Then everyone goes, “Wow! It’s a man! Cooking!” It’s disgusting, it’s gross. Now I’m better and can cook much simpler things, but initially it was not very often, very detailed, and incredibly precious.

I read you once set bok choy on fire while you were cooking. How?

[It was last year] when my girlfriend and I were living in an apartment without a wok, and I was trying to make a stir-fry in quite a small frypan. It was foolish on a number of levels: the bok choy still had water on it, and when I threw it in, the oil and water mixed, and the whole thing caught aflame. My girlfriend, who I was making dinner for that night, then said, “Ok. I’m buying you a wok.” [That night] we ordered noodles instead.

You worked in a bottle shop for a number of years while making it as a comedian. What was that like?

The bottle shop I worked at was right in Sydney’s Chinatown, and most of the upmarket stuff we sold was cognac – $8000, $15,000 bottles. People would come in, and in Chinese culture, there’s a showiness to [buying cognac]. Our last deliveries went out at 11.30pm, and at 11.25pm we would get about 40 calls from all these karaoke bars. So I’d do a lap of Chinatown with this trolley filled with cases of cognac to karaoke bars.

You’ve toured a lot as a stand-up comedian. Which city has the best food?

We made a doco for SBS called Where Are You Really From? where we went to regional centres and talked to non-Anglo migrant communities, usually in some really small towns. What I was surprised to discover is, in most places in Australia, you’re about an hour away from an [acclaimed] restaurant.

When we first started filming, we’d get a big lump sum for our food allowance. Then [SBS] changed the [system for claiming expenses], and we thought: we need to get max value out of this now. We’d go to the supermarket for breakfast and just get a muesli bar, a petrol station for lunch for a bread roll, and then we’d have all the rest of the money to spend on dinner. So we found ourselves having very sad breakfasts and lunches, and then just finding the one [award-winning] winery restaurant in the area for dinner.

Do you like to eat before or after your stand-up gigs?

Like a lot of comedians, I have a very specific ritual of food and drink before a show. Usually the two hours before, I won’t eat or drink anything – I might have a glass of water before I go on stage. I find if I eat before I get really sleepy onstage; I’m more lazy when I’m full. I also can’t have caffeine, because then I talk too quickly.

Celebrity Letters & Numbers has had a reboot after nine years and sees the return of maths whiz Lily Serna and wordsmith David Astle, but you replaced Richard Morecroft in the hosting chair. What was that like?

If there was any hint Richard Morecroft was unhappy, or there was any tension, I would have felt very uncomfortable, but being reassured he was fine with it made it much less intimidating. He’s since been in touch a couple of times and he’s the most wonderful, gracious and warm person, and I’m very thankful for his kindness.

As the host of Celebrity Letters & Numbers, who’s been your favourite guest?

Because it’s SBS, there’s a diversity charter you have to hit in a way that other outlets don’t. So for me, being able to showcase some people who weren’t necessarily getting a lot of play elsewhere – not because they’re not funny and not brilliant, but because the way the market works – was really rewarding. People like Jennifer Wong and Dane Simpson – who do some TV work but should be doing heaps more, but for whatever reason aren’t hosting the Today show – it was great to see them crushing it.

In the original Australian series, winners received a Macquarie Dictionary. Now, the prize is a chapter of your parents’ encyclopaedia set…

Yeah, a shitty encyclopaedia I found in the garage. Our house is full of junk – there were four kids. So giving away stuff from the family home was in many ways a favour to my parents.

Celebrity Letters & Numbers airs 7.30pm Saturday on SBS and SBS On Demand.

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