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Jason Quinn Will Meet You at the Playground

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

* * *

In Quinn's mind, there are two ways to run a restaurant. The first is what he refers to as "full customization," and it has become the norm in American dining. You, the paying customer, handpick precisely what you want and don't want in a dish. No cheese? Add peas? This sauce instead of that sauce? Sure, fine.

But Quinn believes there are consequences to this.

Jarred Dooley, director of libations
John Gilhooley
Jarred Dooley, director of libations
Frank Deloach and Brad Radack's matching tattoos
John Gilhooley
Frank Deloach and Brad Radack's matching tattoos

Location Info

Map

The Playground

220 E. 4th St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Santa Ana

Details

The Playground, www.playgrounddtsa.com. Open Wed.-Sat., noon-close; Sun., brunch, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; supper, 5-9 p.m.

VIDEO: See our video interview with chef Jason Quinn.

"The Counter is a perfect example," he says. "I go to the Counter, and I order a burger and put tons of stuff on it. I fuck it up, and I hate it, and it's my fault. I have a negative impression and don't want to go back there. If [the cooks] would have served me what they wanted to serve, [the burger] probably would have been better."

The Playground, alternately, is "chef-driven," a term restaurants use when the food directly represents the aesthetic of a single chef (or a small group of chefs) instead of a corporation or brand. For Quinn, it also means that guests should try dishes the way they were intended. "Just try it," he says. "We say, 'Hey, we've worked really hard on this, and this is what we want to show you.' How can I look at you and serve you something I don't think is good and say, 'Enjoy your meal'? What kind of asshole am if I do that?"

He didn't set out to be a hell-raising chef. Growing up in Irvine, Quinn was an "insanely picky eater."

"Pizza, plain cheeseburgers—that's it," he recalls. His parents, both lawyers, were terrible cooks. "My mom [would] buy, like, frozen ground turkey and put it in a cold pan and turn it on and just let it boil in its own ice water. Then she'd put that in a casserole dish with boxed mashed potatoes on top, with raw onion and Cheddar cheese, and she'd bake it and say, 'Oh, shepherd's pie.'"

Quinn's grandfather had a health condition and couldn't have much salt, so his family never cooked with it. "I didn't know what salt was for until I was 19," he says. "I couldn't figure out why restaurant food always tasted so much better than the food at home."

He attended Tarbut V'Torah, a private Jewish school in Irvine, saying now that its kosher policies are probably the reason why he cooks so much pork. "It's such a noble animal, the pig," says Quinn, who was raised Jewish. "But this group of people gave it no love."

Quinn excelled in math and science, and went to UC Santa Barbara to study chemistry. His father, Bob, believes his son has always been "a little bit of a genius," proclaiming, "He could cure cancer if that's what he wanted to do."

One day when he was a sophomore in college, Quinn happened to catch Emeril Live. The voluble host was making a brie-and-blue-cheese quesadilla, making it look simple: Plop the cheese onto a tortilla, fold it, pan-fry it with some oil, sprinkle on some cinnamon and sugar, add a Barlett pear compote and walnuts, and BAM! "I remember thinking, 'That's, like, six things. That's not hard. I can do that,' so I did," Quinn says.

By following recipes step by step, he started cooking for friends, girls he was dating and family members. The money Quinn's parents gave him for textbooks went instead to buy cookbooks. "It was almost like a curse," he says of his new obsession. "If you get the bug, you have to do it." He eventually called his parents to tell them he decided what he wanted be—a chef.

Bob Quinn remembers the conversation. "He couldn't see my reaction on the other end of the phone, but I just thought, 'Ohhhhh, no. That is such a hard, hard life,'" he says. "But I said to him, 'Great!'"

Jason switched his major to history—"the quickest way out"—and wrote a thesis on four British chefs: Jamie Oliver, Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal. After college, he returned to Orange County in 2008 and started working as a waiter at Houston's in Irvine. When he would talk to customers about food and cooking, he'd speak with such enthusiasm that people would sometimes ask if he'd come to their homes to cook for their friends. A private catering business was born.

On a trip to Las Vegas, Quinn recognized celebrity chef Kerry Simon at his restaurant at Palms Casino Resort; Simon offered to buy the young fan a drink. They talked about food: premium ingredients, the beauty of a good cocktail. Seeing Quinn's ambition, Simon invited him to be a stage, the kitchen equivalent of an intern, at his Los Angeles restaurant, Simon LA. Soon after, Quinn joined the staff at Charlie Palmer at South Coast Plaza, and months after that, he became a chef at Hanna's in Rancho Santa Margarita, a place with a hospitality policy to never say no.

"I can't tell you how many times a table sat down and ordered a rack of lamb, and I had to leave my station, run to Trader Joe's, buy a rack of lamb and cook it," he says.

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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.

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.

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

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. :)

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.

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.

L.H.
L.H.

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

DanGarion
DanGarion

That was just my first reaction.

 
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