'Eat because it's a window into a culture': 76ers chef's journey from Seoul to Seattle to the NBA

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Friday June 30th, 2017

Brown cowhide chairs circle the white-marble table. Floor to ceiling windows wall the second-floor conference room. To the east lies a panoramic view of the two sparkling practice courts inside the 76ers’ sprawling 125,000 square foot training complex. To the west, Philadelphia’s skyline across the Delaware River emerges from the treetops rooted on the Camden, N.J. property. JaeHee Cho’s cell phone rings.

T.J. McConnell has phoned the Sixers’ executive chef. Philadelphia’s scrappy, undrafted point guard wants to know the most organic way to prepare his morning java. “I can talk about coffee forever,” Cho replies. “There’s a lot of health benefits to drinking coffee, but we just have to do it in moderation and we just have to make sure you’re using fresh beans.”

Cho, 33, is amidst his first full off-season with the organization. And as teams have ramped up the league’s health and wellness arms race, the Sixers are the first in the NBA to combine nutrition and food preparation in-house and under the same roof. “Ben Simmons might like Salmon whereas Joel Embiid might like pasta,” says head coach Brett Brown. “And so you have the opportunity to learn from the player, craft the food that we want to go into their bodies, all under the umbrella of health.”

Most clubs employ a nutritionist and outsource meals to catering companies or vice versa. Cho collaborates with the Sixers’ sports science department to create dietary guidelines for their players, and then animates that criteria in personalized dishes particular players enjoy. “That’s pretty innovative, that they’re making it that individualized based on taste,” says Marie Spano, the Hawks’ nutritionist. 

Embiid and Jerryd Bayless eat whatever Cho crafts in the kitchen. McConnell and Justin Anderson are more inquisitive. “Yes, I’m here to provide for them and replenish and fuel them,” Cho says. “But I feel like food knowledge and food experience go hand in hand with life.” He may as well be describing the quixotic journey that brought him to this interview. 

76ers executive chef JaeHee Cho slices a pineapple.
Courtesy of the Philadelphia 76ers

Cho was born in Seoul, Korea in 1984. His father practiced architectural engineering, often visiting the middle east to construct refineries and buildings. His mother supplemented the family’s income running a crepe stand at a department store, arranging flowers and creating beautiful calligraphy. Twice a year, family living in the States would send care packages for Cho and his older brother, each box overflowing with American candies and VHS tapes boasting Saturday morning cartoons. “It was like Christmas,” Cho says. 

The family dined on traditional Korean meals, primarily comprised of rice, broth-based stews and banchan, literally translating to “side dishes,” which rotated a selection of pickled and preserved vegetables. Mom and grandma incorporated a mung bean sprout soup into the breakfast assortment. They specialized in kimchi, served noodle dishes at lunch and grilled meat and fish for dinner. Cho happily devoured the home cooking, but would sneak a meal at KFC whenever he could. 

He fell in love with sports at an early age as the 1988 Seoul Olympics infused athletic competition into the culture. “It was a source of pride for the community,” Cho says. His pre school taught him how to swim while instructing calisthenics and rudimentary gymnastics, but it was basketball that captured his heart. A dirt plot in front of his elementary school housed four hoops. When rain washed over the yard, the sand turned into mud, revealing the drainage system beneath the muck. It was far from an ideal playing surface, but it provided ample enough space for Cho to mimic Michael Jordan. 

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The care packages from abroad soon included tapes of full-length NBA games. By the time Jordan’s Bulls faced the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals, Cho could glue his eyes to the tape-delayed broadcast on AFKN. The grainy footage from those title bouts proved difficult to discern. So when replays flashed across the television, the entire room lunged towards the monitor, their jaws dropping at the aerial feats before them. “What Commissioner [David] Stern did to globalize the game, I’m absolutely a product of whatever those efforts were,” Cho says. 

Cho’s father had long been determined to bring his family to the States., and shortly after Cho’s eighth birthday, the U.S. approved his visa application and the family departed for Seattle. The abundance of paved basketball courts provided an amazing contrast to Seoul. The Sonics were in the middle of their surge to the 1996 Finals, and Cho became hooked on hoops. Meanwhile, his parents invested their capital in a dry cleaning store. They sold it and took over a hot dog and sausage shop shortly after, exposing Cho to his first taste of restauranteering.  

The Diggity Dog grew exponentially under their watch. Dad ripped out the back office and converted it into a children’s play area. Customers brought pictures of their pups to hang by the door. After middle school classes let out, Cho would bus to the shop, where he maintained the toppings station, chopping onions, grating cheese and wiping down the counter top. Plaques above the bar detailed how to dress footlongs in order to create an authentic dog from Chicago or New York and other famous combinations. One Saturday afternoon, a University of Washington student spotted the family mixing sliced franks into rice and kimchi bowls, and asked for a serving. Cho then expanded the toppings station even further, realizing the creative outlet food can offer. Even still, his father cautioned against working in the restaurant industry. 

"Eat because it’s a window into a culture."

Cho worked the late-night cafe at Haverford College in Philadelphia, anyway. “Maybe it’s a little bit of a rebellious streak,” he says. He needed work study jobs, and gravitated to what reminded him of Seattle. “It was just familiar,” Cho says. “The smells and the sinks, I wasn’t scared of working in the kitchen.” He found more work as a basketball team statistician. He started logging numbers on a StateCrew dos scoring program. By his senior year, the coaching staff asked if he, by hand, could track advanced hustle stats like deflections and chart who defended each shot.

He followed his girlfriend after undergrad, first to Pittsburgh and back to Philly, where he began his rise into the city’s culinary scene. He worked his way from washing dishes to line cook posts. “You piece together three or four different jobs and just make it happen,” Cho says. He flipped through books on culinary history, learned about farming and digested academic articles on why the pickled foods he grew up on were important dishes. Eventually, Chef Joe Monnich offered him a sous chef post at Stephen Starr’s Parc restaurant, the No. 1 grossing eatery in the city. “It’s a beautiful machine,” Cho says. 

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Last April, former Suns owner and current 76ers adviser Jerry Colangelo dined at the Rittenhouse Square establishment. Word trickled back to Cho the Hall of Fame exec was eating his culinary creations. “Tell him the chef is wearing a Suns hat,” Cho ordered. Colangelo called bullshit on the messenger and stormed into the kitchen. Cho fumbled a horde of order tickets as the former Phoenix owner chuckled. “I love your work,” is all Cho could intonate. Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers’ newly-minted GM, joined his father later that evening and Cho fled the kitchen to talk basketball. Philly often brought draft prospects to dinner at Parc; it would serve the restaurant well to ingratiate himself with the team’s brass. “I thought it was just going to be a funny story to tell,” Cho says. 

A week later, Bryan returned with several other 76ers executives and requested Cho by name. He asked for an elevator pitch on a chef’s costs and day-to-day activity. By the end of Cho’s improvised response, Colangelo instructed him to create a presentation for Philly’s business team. “I’m a scout,” Colangelo says. "He had this certain energy and he knew the game and the nutrition aspect of it. He checked all the boxes.” A few interviews and a taste testing later, Cho had a new gig that improbably combined his two greatest passions. 

The night when Jerry came into the kitchen at Parc.
Courtesy of JaeHee Cho

The chef leans back in the cowhide recliner, rolling his navy 76ers polo up toward his shoulder. Cho reveals an elaborate, finely detailed tattoo sleeve. Napa cabbage is etched at the top. There’s a West coast oyster, an onion, a garlic clove, ginger, flour and pepper; all components of his mother’s kimchi recipe. Mt. Rainer’s peaks are featured at the bottom. Each inch of ink has a purpose, analogous to the personal touch he uses to handle the Sixers’ food. 

Cho has breakfast prepared one hour before each practice and lunch ready one hour afterwards. He remains on call for whenever three players are at the facility, primed to fuel the young roster’s interminable frames. Cho runs the entire operation only with the help of sous chef Rob Marzinsky. “He’s f***cking brilliant,” Cho says of Marzinsky. “His cuisine history knowledge is like, encyclopedic.” They stock their kitchen with local products, like meats from Swedesboro, N.J. and in-season produce from Green Meadow Farm in Gap, Penn. 

That care, that detail, that… process, has paid dividends with the player’s nutrition. Cho has transformed the team’s meals into history lessons and a collaborative learning environment. “Eat because it’s a window into a culture,” he says. “Because you just want to, because it feels good and it tastes good.” And because it can take you places you once could never have imagined.

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