JaeHee Cho fell in love with the NBA from the other side of the world, watching Michael Jordan and Larry Bird in games broadcast days later and playing pickup on dirt fields in South Korea.
At age 8, when his family moved to America, the first thing he noticed in his new home of Seattle was the basketball courts.
“They were everywhere,” he said. “Real courts, with real nets. There were covered courts — you could play in the rain.”
Twenty-five years later, Cho’s love of the game has landed him in Camden, where he works as the full-time chef for the Philadelphia 76ers in the team’s new training facility.
Cho was a sous chef at Parc, one in a series of positions at high-profile Philly restaurants, until a chance meeting with one of the league’s most prominent executives led the Sixers to handpick him as the team’s chef.
Cho recently finished his first season in the building’s spacious kitchen, where he prepares everything from lean meats and high-protein workout recovery snacks to comforting take-home meals like beef brisket and pickled vegetables.
“Really, my work hasn’t changed,” said Cho, 33, who lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Leigh. “My job is still to make sure that I’m using the best ingredients, make sure it tastes good, make sure it’s nutritious. It’s about expanding our view of the world through food — now it’s just for a very specific group of people.”
Cho grew up with his parents and older brother just outside of Seoul, South Korea. His father, an architectural engineer who served in the Korean army during the Vietnam War, applied for the family to immigrate to the U.S. shortly after Cho was born. As a child, Cho watched NBA games that were broadcast on the Armed Forces Korea Network. It was the 1980s, and then NBA commissioner David Stern had embarked on a mission to take basketball to the world.
“He was globalizing the game, and I’m absolutely a product of that,” Cho said. “Basketball was America; it was hip. It was all these things to me.”
Cho’s family resettled in Seattle when he was in third grade and opened a dry-cleaning business. They also ran a hot-dog restaurant that gave Cho his first kitchen experience, helping his parents with prep work and other tasks.
He learned English in school and started playing basketball with a local Boys & Girls Club. Like many sports-obsessed kids, he was determined to make it to the big league one day — until he realized he’d never grow as tall as he needed to be.
When it came time to pick a college, the NBA was a factor in bringing him to Haverford College. “Allen Iverson played for the Sixers,” he said. “I thought, ‘I can go to Sixers games.’ ”
At Haverford, where he majored in English literature, he secured a work-study job tallying game statistics for the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
After his graduation in 2007, jobs were scarce, so he drew on his restaurant experience and got a job washing dishes and doing food prep at a restaurant in Pittsburgh and later at a bar in West Philadelphia. Something clicked for Cho, who felt a sense of camaraderie that reminded him of being on a sports team, and he decided to pursue cooking full time.
From there he was hired at Center City’s Zinc, which led to stints at Stateside, Pub & Kitchen, Dandelion, and Serpico.
The job at Parc was his first glimpse into the complicated machinery of a large-scale restaurant with a huge staff, and Cho thrived on it.
One night in 2016, a member of the front-of-house team came to the kitchen and told Cho that he had just seen Jerry Colangelo, then a special adviser for the 76ers, seated for dinner. Cho happened to be wearing a baseball cap with the logo of the Phoenix Suns, a team previously owned by Colangelo, and he told the staff member to relay the message back:
“I said, ‘Tell him the chef is wearing a Phoenix Suns hat, and he wants to say hi,’ ” Cho said.
Colangelo asked Cho to come out and prove it, and he did. The two talked basketball: Suns, Sonics, and Sixers. Cho returned to the kitchen with, he thought, nothing but a story he could tell.
But the next week, Colangelo’s son Bryan, president of the team’s basketball operations, returned to Parc with representatives from the Sixers’ front office. He asked Cho for a brief pitch regarding what chefs do and what they cost. Cho knew plans were underway for the new facility in Camden and thought they might be scouting for a consultant. Instead, a few months later, they asked him to be the chef.
The Sixers are one of a growing number of NBA teams that have brought on chefs in recent years. Cho works closely with the team’s strength training and nutrition coaches, coordinating a complicated regimen of game-day food, recovery meals and off-day snacks. One player’s recent day included eggs with bacon, black beans, salsa and avocado in the morning, a lunch of cauliflower macaroni and cheese, and a take-home dinner of grilled chicken, rice and curried vegetables. Another player’s regimen called for roasted salmon for lunch and dinner of chicken with mushroom cream pasta.
Most days Cho and his sous chef also prepare buffet-style dishes for the few dozen members of the coaching staff and other administrators who work in his side of the 125,000-square-foot building. The work itself is similar to a restaurant kitchen shift, he said, but he’s finished by late afternoon instead of midnight or later.
“I’m a cog in this huge system, but some of the guys are really into food, and they want to taste different things,” he said. “My goal every day is to introduce them to something they didn’t know yesterday.”
With one season under his belt, Cho estimated that he’s cooked for the Sixers’ players close to 100 times. And 14 years after moving to the Philadelphia area, it’s important to note that the former die-hard Sonics fan roots for them, too.
“Sometimes I come in early to use the court,” he said. “You look up and you read those names. And you remember you’re part of something historic.”