The Chef Back Q&A: Briann January and the perfect piece of salmon

PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 31: DeWanna Bonner #24 (R) of the Phoenix Mercury celebrates with Briann January #12 after scoring against the Seattle Storm during game three of the WNBA Western Conference Finals at Talking Stick Resort Arena on August 31, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Mercury defeated the Storm 86-66. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 31: DeWanna Bonner #24 (R) of the Phoenix Mercury celebrates with Briann January #12 after scoring against the Seattle Storm during game three of the WNBA Western Conference Finals at Talking Stick Resort Arena on August 31, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Mercury defeated the Storm 86-66. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The Step Back becomes The Chef Back, as the WNBA’s Briann January talks with us about quarantine cooking, her favorite restaurants and the perfect meal.

If this time of quarantining and social distancing has fostered a growing obsession with food, you’re certainly not alone. The Step Back staff has been spending plenty of time swapping recipes and talking up their sourdough experiments. A few weeks ago we even offered up some of our favorite recipes with an NBA twist. We had so much fun cosplaying as “The Chef Back” we decided to keep it going, talking to some of our favorite hoopers about what they’re eating right now, the food cultures in their families, their favorite restaurants and more.

Briann January is a decorated WNBA veteran, having spent nine seasons with the Indiana Fever and the last two with the Phoenix Mercury. She won a title with the Fever in 2012 and has received six All-Defensive team selections. January was traded to the Connecticut Sun in February, joining a deep squad that pushed the Washington Mystics to five games in last year’s WNBA FInals.

The Step Back (Ian Levy): How’s everything going on your end? Everyone safe and healthy?

Briann January: Yeah, everyone on my end is safe and healthy, you know, following the rules and doing their part. But it’s a difficult time for everybody, just getting adjusted to what’s going on and working within the restrictions.

The Step Back: Everyone’s stuck at home and thinking about food these days. What kind of things have you been cooking?

I’ve made lasagna, doing Mexican night, trying to eat as clean as possible you know, because I’m not running up and down the court. But I’ve been making my way through some of my mom’s recipes that I absolutely love, so that’s been fun.

The Step Back: Was she the cook in your house growing up?

Yeah, my dad did the majority of the breakfast meals, you know, the pancakes, the eggs. But my mom, she threw it down for sure.

The Step Back: So what kind of stuff are we talking about? What were the dinners like in your house growing up?

You know, I ate very well. It’s a wonder I wasn’t … large (laughing) … because I just love my mom’s cooking so much. Everything from different types of casseroles to her lasagna, which I love. But she could just put anything together with anything that was in the fridge. It was really like Top Chef, she made some magic. She always kept our meals pretty balanced with vegetables and carbs and protein so I was taught early on to eat really well.

The Step Back: How different is the stuff you’re eating now from what you eat during the season?

You know, I’ve used this time as an excuse to treat myself during quarantine … (laughing) … whether that’s the occasional root beer float or an ice cream cone, just throwing that in the there just to treat yourself.

The Step Back: What are meals like during the season, game day meals and otherwise? Like how does your diet during the season lend itself to training and staying ready?

During the season I do a lot of meal-prepping, it makes it easy so I can stay on track with getting the amount of food in me that I need to recover for the next day. On a game day, I will usually have a little something before shootaround, whether that’s peanut butter and banana or something light, and then come back from shootaround and have a bigger breakfast like a scramble with spinach, eggs, some turkey bacon maybe, some fruit. And then, you know, relax, rest. My naps have gotten shorter so I don’t really sleep a ton. And then I’ll eat later on like a sweet potato and some chicken and a vegetable, and then head to the game.

The Step Back: How much does travel complicate a daily meal routine and keeping your nutrition where you want it to be?

It’s tough, there are a few cities that I really enjoy playing in because they have a fair amount of food options that I really enjoy and kind of fit my diet. You know, there’s places where you can put together your own grain bowls or different things like that and I love that because it’s just a solid meal with enough calories and good, clean ingredients. Let’s see, what are the tough cities we go to … Dallas is always tough. Connecticut … (laughing) … I mean, I’m in Connecticut now so that will hopefully make it a little bit easier because I’ll be able to cook when I’m there. But you know that was always a tough trip because you’re in the casino.

The Step Back: Any favorite restaurants in Indianapolis or the Phoenix area you want to plug?

Oh, man, I have a ton of great favorites! I can’t leave out Cafe Patachou in Indianapolis. Another brunch place, I loved, on Mass Ave., Garden Table. You know, St. Elmo’s, with their shrimp cocktail, that’s a must when you go to Indy. I mean, they’re coming up. Indy is starting to blow up downtown, they have some great restaurants.

And Phoenix, I mean, you can get anything. They have great Mexican here. There’s too many great restaurants for me to start listing them all.

The Step Back: Any restaurants in Spokane you make sure to visit when you’re home?

When I’m home, I live on the South Hill, so, the Perry District in the past few years has built up and there’s a strip of great restaurants there. And my family and I, we always walk down there and grab a meal and it’s always solid. I eat a lot at home though, with my mom. I can’t stay home for more than a week, I put on too many pounds.

The Step Back: So, this might be a long shot, but I went to the University of Idaho and the closest airport was in Spokane. Whenever family came to visit we’d have to drive up to Spokane to pick them up and there was this famous restaurant, like an old steakhouse, called The Clinkerdagger we used to take my parents to. Have you ever been?

Oh, yeah! Man, I haven’t been there in years!

The Stepback: They had this drink, called, like The Huckleberry Drop. It was a lemon drop with fresh huckleberry puree…

The huckleberries man, up in Washington, it’s a thing and it’s good. Anything they do with huckleberries up there, I’ll say yes to any of it.

The Stepback: Playing overseas — you’ve played in Hungary, Israel, Brazil, Turkey — do you get a chance to dig into the culture, whether it’s food or otherwise? Or is it just all basketball and then you’re out?

No, that’s the thing about being over there. You have the time. I mean you’re traveling quite a bit but I make it a point to try new things. I love food, so I’m going to try it. I mean, I definitely found a lot of things I didn’t like. But there’s been some amazing things that I’ve found while being overseas. I mean, when you go to Brazil, all the churrascarias and the barbecue out there was delicious. When I was in Israel, shakshuka, just a bunch of different dishes. Shabbat that I went to with different families, their food was amazing. When I was in Turkey, the soups, oh my goodness, the soups. Playing overseas it got me hooked on soup, I was never a big soup person but especially in Turkey they have this lentil soup that I love, and all the kebabs. I love being overseas and trying new food.

The Stepback: Do you get a chance to eat in people’s homes, with teammates’ families? Or is it more restaurants?

I’ve done a little bit of both. I’ve tried it all. I just say yes and I’ve always had good experiences.

The Stepback: A couple of basketball questions, how are you feeling about this move and being a part of the Connecticut Sun and helping them build on such a strong season?

I mean, I’m feeling great. They have a loaded squad with a ton of talent and they’re right on the verge of getting it done. I’m not putting this all on my self or DeWanna [Bonner] but hopefully, we can be the parts of the puzzle they’ve been missing to help them get over the hump. They’ve been competing year after year, in the mix, and I really do believe that we have the ability to compete with everyone. I’m excited.

The Stepback: What kind of conversations have you had with the coaching staff about what your role is going to look like?

I talked to Curt [Miller], I’ve talked to pretty much everyone on the coaching staff. They’re doing a great job checking in on us through this whole thing. When I was considering heading there, you know, talking to Curt about my role, because Jasmine [Thomas] and I are both point guards, but having the ability to put us both on the court, run a two-guard system and really push the tempo and pace of play, and having both of us on defense harassing the other team is going to be a lot of fun. But mainly what he said is just to bring my game, to bring my leadership, to bring my toughness and be a leader on the court.

The Stepback: How hard is it mentally to prepare for the season, not knowing when you might be able to start and what the dynamic might actually look like?

I think this is the hardest thing for coaches and players because we are always working on a schedule we are always planning. It’s easy to plan out your workouts so you can build and then know when you need to be ready and when you need to be prepared. But with no end date in sight, it’s just kind of go out and train. It’s been really difficult. But from our team Zoom calls, everybody is locked in, everybody is getting their workouts in and they’re staying on top of us and doing everything they can on the coaching staff to make sure when we get into camp we can get rocking and rolling.

The Stepback: Do you have access to reasonable facilities? One of our writers did an interview with Trevelin Queen last week, who’s preparing for the NBA Draft. He’s stuck in New Mexico and he said the only two courts he could find, one has an 11-foot rim and the other has a 13-foot rim, so he can’t do any jumpshooting.

Oh, my goodness. I’ve kind of turned my garage into a workout facility, of sorts. But as for basketball, the majority of courts in our area have been roped off. I was driving down the street the other day and I saw a church that had a hoop up and I had a ball in my car, so I jumped out and got some shots in. I mean, you just have to do what you can. This is a great time to work on ball-handling and all that. It’s tough right now.

The Stepback: We’ll go out with one more food question, and if the answer is your mom’s lasagna, that’s totally fine. But what’s your perfect meal, the thing you’re really craving that you just can’t get in quarantine?

Being landlocked in Arizona, and being from Washington, I’m kind of picky about my seafood and I don’t eat a lot of it while I’m out here.  I’ll take a nice, grilled piece of salmon, and some gnocchi. And just, like, some steamed broccoli. I think that would be perfect right now.

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