Jason Quinn Will Meet You at the Playground

Inside the hyperkinetic career of the novice chef-turned-cooking star

Jason Quinn Will Meet You at the Playground

RULE NO. 1: NO KETCHUP
Jason Quinn loves ketchup, but he won't serve it because he can't make ketchup that is "not evil." Heinz and Hunt's, he says, use "garbage" such as high-fructose corn syrup in their products, and therefore "have no regard for the people who are eating them."

"Everything [I make] is made from scratch and is beautiful, so how can we say, 'Hey, we worked for eight hours to make these French fries, but we're gonna serve you ketchup that we got out of a can?'" he says. "Those things do not equate with each other."

* * *

The Playground chefs (from left): April Ventura, Frank Deloach, Jason Quinn, Brad Radack, Natasha Schneider, Fawn Mathers and Christina Nguyen
John Gilhooley
The Playground chefs (from left): April Ventura, Frank Deloach, Jason Quinn, Brad Radack, Natasha Schneider, Fawn Mathers and Christina Nguyen
The Playground in Santa Ana
John Gilhooley
The Playground in Santa Ana

"So the honeycomb tripe is coming in tomorrow, so are the sweetbreads, so are the trotters," Quinn says. "We're getting Jidori livers that we'll have to soak for a day, and we'll do a really sexy mousse of those."

"You don't want to do it Jewish chop style?" a sous chef asks.

"I'm doing that for the second course of the Death Row Meal."

"Word. That was good with the bourbon."

"I'm gonna put some bone marrow in it, too. Just get real slutty."

"Real slutty."

Quinn is sitting with his kitchen staff at a narrow communal dining table at the Playground, the downtown Santa Ana restaurant he opened three months ago. It's just after 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, the staff's day of intense prep, and he and sous chef Frank DeLoach are discussing the week's menu with the zeal of dorm-room buddies hovering over a Scarlett Johansson Maxim spread.

"I gotta tell you, I'm rock-hard for the fucking country ham with the pan con tomate," Quinn says, with no hint of irony.

Dressed in jeans and aprons, Quinn, and five other young chefs—a "ragtag group of dedicated lunatics," as Quinn says—skim through handwritten grocery lists, mentally noting what they have to do before heading back into the kitchen at 8 a.m. the next day, ready to hand-grind burger meat, braise octopuses and knead masa to make fresh tortillas. Quinn, the leader of the lunatics, hashes out the plans and types them into his MacBook. He has close-cropped, brown facial hair and crystal-blue eyes and speaks with the speed and intensity of an impassioned union organizer, his hands punctuating every statement.

"Oh, we're also getting a case of rabbit," he says. "I was thinking it'd be really cool if we took all the front quarters off and do, like, chicken wings, so it'd be, like, buffalo rabbit wings."

"With carrot sticks!" says April Ventura, another sous chef.

"Can we call it Buffalo Bunny Wings?" asks chef Brad Radack. He pauses and adds, "I'm such a sick fuck."

The menu will also feature a rack of prime-grade pork spareribs rubbed with coffee, braised overnight, smothered with molasses and served whole. It's a 4.5-pound beast, and since the Playground doesn't have any plates big enough to handle it, servers will bring it to guests on a sheet pan.

"It's such a joke," Quinn says. "We had this rack of ribs and couldn't figure out how to portion it fairly, so we just decided to serve the whole fucking thing."

The Playground's menu changes weekly, daily, hourly even, depending on what looks good at the markets and whether the chefs are feeling mustard cabbage or crispy apples or, fuck, both, served together, drenched in bacon fat. The push for every meal to be more memorable than the last has made 25-year-old Quinn a walking Tilt-A-Whirl: brainstorming, scouring for quality ingredients, cooking, tasting, altering and tasting again, moaning food-as-sex metaphors after each glorious bite.

It's also made him one of the most talked-about chefs in Orange County in years and has sent his career on a trajectory that makes a J-curve seem as arching as a cutting board. In a place where you can't drive a mile without passing some fast-food edifice, Quinn—the co-winner of Season 2 of Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race—is enthralling the county's food scene with playful comfort dishes and a staunch defense of his restaurant doctrines. Scribbled on the chalkboard wall are house rules that are never, ever broken. Last month, Quinn was both blasted as a hotheaded snot-nose and hailed as a service-industry hero after he responded to a bad Yelp review with a rant that ended, "Burn in Hell."

At the Playground, you can't always have it your way, but for the devout fans who arrive each day, hungry to discover what Quinn will be serving, that's exactly the way it should be.

Quinn wraps up the meeting, sending the chefs off to their stations. "Let's break down those 10 chickens today and get them marinating in some, like, really awesome marinade," he tells them. "Something incredibly flavorful."

"Can we do Asian brick chicken?" Radack asks.

"We can do anything!" Quinn cracks.

* * *

RULE NO. 2: RARE OR MEDIUM-RARE ONLY
Quinn says the meat the Playground uses is such high quality and the sous vide cooking technique so wonderful that it "guarantees a perfect medium-rare every time." If customers try it and can't stomach it, the chefs will grill it up. In fact, if guests try anything on the menu and don't like it, they don't have to pay for it. "Nobody forced you to come here," he explains. "We didn't advertise, saying, 'Hey, Best Happy Hour in Town.' We keep to ourselves, we do things our way, and we try to cook the best damn food we know how."

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15 comments
Vince Lucarelli
Vince Lucarelli

Hard to believe the delicate genius can't figure out how to make a decent ketchup he'd find good enough to serve. Easy to believe this other nerd is criticizing some guy for only commenting on the hunts ketchup & not the brilliance of the article. Great job putting that simpleton in his place you pompous prick. Must be great to always have something insightful to contribute.

Costa Mesa CVB
Costa Mesa CVB

Jason's such a talented and creative chef. We're lucky to have him just down the street from us in Santa Ana.

Bernie
Bernie

Great, just what Downtown Santa Ana needs: another privileged, upper-middle class white boy from Irvine with "edgy tattoos" shilling overpriced food to a handful of other white hipsters. When did society decide to elevate glorified fry-cooks as celebrities? So this hipster decides to curse and act like a 2nd rate Gordon Ramsey... this makes Jason "dangerous" and "exciting"? This guy is about as dangerous as a rerun of Silver Spoons. I personally hope Playground fails and one-by-one the Hipster invasion ends.

And PLEASE... enough with the Hipster glasses! They only make people want to punch you in the face.

Bernie
Bernie

Great, just what Downtown Santa Ana needs: another privileged, upper-middle class white boy from Irvine with "edgy tattoos" shilling overpriced food to a handful of other white hipsters. When did society decide to elevate glorified fry-cooks as celebrities? So this hipster decides to curse and act like a 2nd rate Gordon Ramsey... this makes Jason "dangerous" and "exciting"? This guy is about as dangerous as a rerun of Silver Spoons. I personally hope Playground fails and one-by-one the Hipster invasion ends.

And PLEASE... enough with the Hipster glasses people. They only make people want to punch you in the face.

Mark Meyers
Mark Meyers

Cute. While I am certainly no hipster, I do enjoy good food, and Jason and Co. are absolutely providing it. The food isn't really overpriced, either. The menu runs the gamut in terms of price points. You seem like you've been jilted. You need to take it one day at a time and/or maybe keep repeating inspiring quotes to yourself, or something. I believe in you.

Herb Toker
Herb Toker

Cool article - I spent about 15 minutes reading it when I should have been doing real work! I know they're loved on Yelp, but after looking at a few of their menus, I didn't think it looked all that great. Plus, seriously, if they want to impose a 3% gratuity for the kitchen staff (which I've never heard of), why don't they just increase the prices 3%..? Either way - after reading this, the wifey and I will definitely check out "The Playground!"

DanGarion
DanGarion

Excellent article, the more and more I read about Jason the more respect I gain for him, he's doing great work.

DanGarion
DanGarion

Just an FYI, Hunt's doesn't use HFCS.

Ryan
Ryan

5 pages and that's what you get out of this article? really? Oh and if you read it again, it says, "Heinz and Hunt's, he says, use "garbage" such as high-fructose corn syrup in their products"... such as, implying that amongst other ingredients that can be contributed to either and both products. Oh and after researching it, Heinz doesn't use HFCS in it's organic ketchup or it's simple ketchup. However in their larger 24 oz. bottles, the ones most commonly purchased, it's listed as an ingredient. And Hunt's just recently removed HFCS from it's recipe in response to an outpour of need to make items healthier. Do some homework first, and for your own sake, enjoy the friggen article! It's brilliantly written.

DanGarion
DanGarion

That was just my first reaction.

L.H.
L.H.

Growing up I was an extremely picky eater. However now I consider myself to be quite adventurous and quite a foodie thanks to my experiences at the Playground. I go in and ask sous chef Brad Radack what I should eat, and I never turn anything down, no matter how different it is. I know that the talented chefs working the kitchen at the Playground would never send out a dish that isn't a work of art. The wait staff is great, the atmosphere is so comforting (love the seating), the beer is good, and the food is out of this world. I am constantly recommending this restaurant. (and apart from the couple of idiots who were looking for reasons to dislike this place, I've never heard anything bad!!)

Great article, it is very much representative of this place.

Naticats
Naticats

Get creative and make some meals that are not meat based

L.H.
L.H.

They have a whole vegetable section.....Your point is invalid.

JB
JB

The quote referencing The Counter is absolutely brilliant, and so, so true.

Every once in awhile, you hear how all the freedom of choice we have in this country is detrimental. And it's applicable to food, too.

Basic lowbrow example: When the waitress at a diner asks what two 'sides' you want with your meat or fish entrée, instead of stating what you think you want...e.g. mashed potatoes and corn...you should be asking *her* "What's good today?" or "What do the regulars get?" or [best of all] *What does the chef want to make most?"

But like idiots, we still pick from that list, like it's going to make us happier...but it doesn't. Etc., etc. etc.

Jason Quinn is brash and focused, but this article proves it's truly less about him and more about... ...wait for it...the customer. And I'm not just saying this because I actually do want a dish named after me, someday. :)

 
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