Just after 9 a.m., Rich Cho has ordered the scallops. He’s not much of a breakfast proponent, anyway, and the seafood dish comes highly recommended by our server at Pearl’s Oyster Bar, which lines the 12th Street edge of Philadelphia’s vaunted Reading Terminal Market. Cho has as large an appetite for exquisite cuisine as he does for elite basketball prospects. And the Hornets general manager wants to share his culinary command with the world.
His food “scouting report” blog, Big Time Bites, has officially launched. After his Instagram feed blew up among NBA executives, a blog seemed like the next logical step. Cho has long snapped photos of his meals, followed by grading the spread among his dining parties. He’s already posted 68 evaluations of premier dishes on the site, rating meals on a five-point scale. Instead the rubric isn’t comprised of stars, but basketball decals housing the Big Time Bites logo, and Cho marks each plate from “rotation” (worthy of being in your regular rotation when you go to a particular restaurant,” the site explains) to “Hall of Fame” (”this dish should be on your bucket list before you die.”) Tiny Spalding NBA balls indicate the price as opposed to traditional dollar signs.
You can make an account and become a food scout as well. That’s Cho’s aspiration. He wants to forge as large of a network as possible, compiling an unrivaled database of the best food on the planet. The best visitor scouting report of the week will earn some free Big Time Bites apparel. Unlike Yelp or TripAdvisor, Big Time Bites solely highlights good food—hence the name—and spotlights individual dishes rather than including a restaurant’s ambiance or service quality. “I definitely have some [meals] that I would—and this may be as silly as it sounds—I would take an overseas flight just to go there for,” Cho says. “There’s so much good food around the world.”
His palette has undergone a fascinating development. Cho’s family immigrated to the States from Burma when he was three years old. When they settled in the Seattle area, his father could only find work on a 7-Eleven’s graveyard shift and his mother at a library a one-hour busride away. The family survived primarily on food stamps and welfare, rarely allowing mom to prepare Burmese noodle soups and fish chowder. Now, Cho casually discusses his favorite overseas restaurant, Tradevo, in Seville, Spain. “I always think about how lucky I am,” Cho says. “I definitely don’t take it for granted.”
When he returned to Seattle to join the SuperSonics’ front office in 1997, a comfortable salary and NBA per diem unlocked the city’s renowned food scene. Bill Branch, now Portland’s assistant GM, arrived in 2008. Cho introduced him to raw fish. “I grew up in the south on Tobacco farms,” Branch says. “Who am I to eat sushi?” Cho shepherded his friend to top seafood destinations and delicious undercover taco spots. Their list of locations and finest dishes cluttered their computers. Each eatery’s ownership and chef somehow knew Cho. “If you’re a regular, I get it,” Branch says. “But you can’t be a regular at every place.”
At the conclusion of each meal, Branch would lean back in his chair, stuffed and contempt. Cho would hunch forward and simply ask, You want to run that back? He rarely orders a single helping yet magically maintains a skinny 160 pounds on his 5’10" frame. “He’s got the gift of metabolism, obviously,” Branch says. “He can just put down beyond what anyone else can put down and still not gain weight,” says Hornets scout Matt McKay. “It’s crazy.”
The Sonics departed for Oklahoma City and became the Thunder in 2009. Cho began frequenting a Chinese spot, often bringing OKC Director of Basketball Research and Analysis Jesse Gould along. Cho typically decides what the entire table will have that meal. “He would just order… and order… and order,” Gould says. The duo then dined at a Chinese restaurant in Chicago later that season, where Cho discovered a new tasty chicken dish. He promptly asked the server to greater describe its contents and snapped a photo for later reference. When they returned to their usual Chinese joint in Oklahoma, Cho presented the picture and relayed the ingredients. The chef happily recreated the dish, which Cho dubbed Thunder chicken, and ordered every time the OKC staff returned. “That was his chicken dish there,” Gould says.
Cho once texted Gould an article revealing an underground Burmese food club in Queens. He was in New York City for a scouting trip and simply had to visit. But the story did not disclose the secret spot’s address, so Cho enlisted assistance tracking down the location of his native cuisine. Gould’s Google deep dive found one locale, although it appeared to just be a random house. Cho jumped in a 35–minute Uber anyway and confidently knocked on the front door. He had improbably found edible El Dorado. And despite the club only cooking for lunch and dinner, he convinced the family to let him dine, and they kindly prepared him a late-morning meal.
The expedition was far from Cho’s most ambitious. While at a Burmese restaurant years ago in Los Angeles, he asked a fellow customer for other Burmese recommendations in the area. The man offered to drive him to an elderly couple’s home in the woods the following day. So Cho found himself in the stranger’s passenger seat, chugging towards a hidden destination in Monterey Park. The dining area sits amongst trees on the couple’s make-shift porch. “You feel like you’re in Southeast Asia,” Cho beams. They’re only open weekends, preparing soups and fish dishes from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Having taken control of the Hornets front office in 2011, he’s conducted meetings with rival GMs on the rickety terrace and frequented on so many occasions, the lady now cooks him immense portions, freezes them and FedEx's the food to Cho’s home in Charlotte. “That’s in the Hall of Fame,” Cho says.
Cho has long only required four hours of sleep to function, allowing ample time to assess Charlotte’s basketball operations and also enshrine his best bites online. “I’m just trying to have some fun with it,” Cho says. “I’m not going to quit my day job.” When we meet in Philly, he has stashed a half-dozen Big Time Bites t-shirts and dad hats inside his Hornets backpack. When the scallops arrive, he takes out his phone to document the meal. “It’s hard to get good pictures sometimes because of the lighting,” he says.
I’ve ordered the Breakfast Jawn. It’s a mountain of every savory breakfast component you can think off, topped with a biscuit and smothered in a chorizo gravy. Multiple times he slyly suggests I file a report on Big Time Bites. He has developed the nickname Trader Cho, after all. I finally obliged later that evening. Cho incessantly whips out his iPhone mid-conversation, showcasing pictures of dishes and looking up the names of restaurants he wants to recommend. In the life of a foodie, a trusted source’s stamp of approval is valued currency. I tell him I’m heading to Boston for a quick visit next week and will be using his report on the lobster roll at Neptune Oyster for dinner on Tuesday. The (basket)ball has already begun rolling, and we spend the next 10 minutes exchanging recommendations of other must-eats in the city.
As the meal concludes, Cho’s wife and two daughters arrive at the market. The family is in town for the Asian American Journalists Association conference, and Cho, the first Asian American GM in the NBA, is the keynote speaker. The girls are debating how to spend the rest of their afternoon, but Cho only has one question in mind, having only just finished his first meal of the day: “What do you guys want to do for lunch?”