Jason Quinn Will Meet You at the Playground

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

A guest once requested an order that contained mushroom risotto, a 10-ounce filet, 6-ounce lobster tail and bacon-balsamic Brussels sprouts. "The plate looked like shit," he recalls.

In early 2010, Quinn got a phone call from Daniel Shemtob, who told him about his plans to start a food truck. The two had become friends as teenagers while Quinn was working at the Starbucks across the street from UC Irvine. Shemtob would come in and linger, and to help time pass, Quinn would challenge Shemtob to do such things as take a quadruple shot of espresso—and he'd do it. "We've always had a love-hate relationship," Shemtob says.

The 23-year-old Shemtob had watched the success of Los Angeles food trucks such as Korean taco sensation Kogi, as well as those of such OC-based ones as Piaggio On Wheels and Barcelona On the Go. The entrepreneurial Shemtob thought he could launch one, too, but he needed someone to create the menu. He asked Quinn because he was the only chef he knew.

Ready for a new venture, Quinn was eager to be a part of it, but he didn't want to simply craft recipes for other cooks to botch. "I said, 'It's not going to work like that. Let me do it with you,'" he says.

* * *

RULE NO. 3: THERE'S A 3 PERCENT GRATUITY ADDED TO ALL GUEST RECEIPTS
The policy is typed out at the bottom of each menu. All the money goes strictly to kitchen employees. "We firmly believe that chefs are underpaid, and this is a way of saying, 'Thank you for your hard work,'" Quinn says. "It's a way to show appreciation for people busting their asses. To be honest, we don't have the budget for these people. When you see all they do and see the 3 percent gratuity, you'll be like, 'Okay, who cares? It's 3 cents on a dollar to help these lunatics have families.'"

* * *

Shemtob and Quinn launched the Lime Truck in June 2010. To Shemtob, both the fruit and color symbolize the "clean, crisp and refreshing flavors of California." They paid $12,000 for a used food truck, painted it lime-green and devised a lofty concept for its cuisine. Quinn would cook dishes using local, organic and sustainably sourced ingredients, and he would change them up on the fly. The whiteboard menu could have "Crispy Gnocchi" scribbled on it one day, and "The Most Interesting Sandwich in the World" the next. (The latter was a grilled cheese stuffed with baked mac and cheese, grilled chicken, and bacon.) Its fan base quickly spiraled from a handful of friends to mobs of repeat customers who'd drive from all over the county and beyond to taste what's new.

While Quinn cooked, Shemtob stayed on the business side of things. "I wouldn't say he's Gordon Ramsay, but he's very aggressive and wants it his way, and he's very loud about it," he says. "If the food isn't perfect, he's gonna snap at somebody." But seeing Quinn's passion was "awesome," he says. "He was coming up with crazy new things. It made every day exciting."

Then, an even bigger opportunity came. Food Network was casting for the second season of The Great Food Truck Race, a competitive reality show for which gourmet food trucks from around the country embark on an "epic coast-to-coast culinary road trip." Of that season's eight contestants, producers picked two from OC: the Lime Truck and popular vegan-food truck Seabirds.

The unabashed personalities of Quinn, Shemtob and new Lime Truck chef Jesse Brockman—all of whom donned purple pants and lime-green sweat bands throughout the competition—made for entertaining television. "We loved their cockiness," says executive producer Dean Ollins. "When we met with them, they said, 'We're the best food truck. We're good-looking guys, and we can't be stopped.' They said there was nothing this production could do to throw them off their game. They basically dared us. So we put them though the ringer."

Host Tyler Florence threw "Speed Bump" challenges at the trucks: "You're out of propane," "You must lose a chef," "You can serve only desserts." When one challenge called for the chefs to create dishes that cost less than a dollar, Quinn resorted to using Velveeta cheese, which disgusted him. Ollins says Quinn's "strength is his weakness. . . . He believes in what he's doing, and he's confident, and these are wonderful traits, but he stubbornly refused to adapt almost before it was too late."

In his on-air interviews for the show, the bullheaded Quinn would defend his dishes to the proverbial bone. "This guest-judge dude just doesn't know what the hell he's talking about," Quinn railed, after a Kansas City food critic dismissed his ricotta pancake as "a little pasty, a little gluey, a little too sweet." "He's not a chef; he just eats for a living. That's the easiest job in the world."

After Miami restaurateur Michael Schwartz praised his citrus-cured ahi tuna poke but said he felt it was a dish from the 1980s, Quinn retorted, "Yeah, it is a retro dish. It's a classic flavor because it works. It's not like we're gonna stop making beef stroganoff because it's outdated."

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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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