Jason Quinn Will Meet You at the Playground

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

The Lime Truck sped to the $100,000 winner's prize the same way it did on the streets of Orange County—by making fans out of a diverse array of everyday eaters hooked on its balls-out approach. But when the trio returned home, Quinn and Shemtob needed a break from the truck and each other. To Shemtob, it had become apparent Quinn "really needed a restaurant." He would make dishes he loved in the Fullerton test kitchen, but they wouldn't turn out the same way when he tried to re-create them in the cramped truck. Quinn says he, too, knew that for him, "a food truck was not going to be the end-all."

By January 2011—before the show had even aired—Quinn and Shemtob had parted ways. "Jason was a lot of the heart of the company," says Shemtob, who now manages three Lime Truck luxe loncheras. "But we didn't work that great together."

Quinn was already scheming for his own place. He wanted to use his $27,000 share of the reality-show winnings to help to open a burger restaurant, calling it the Playground. While that idea "lasted not even two weeks," the name stuck. The new restaurant was going to be a "playful, joyful place," not "fine-dining Seriousville."

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

He found a former Mexican seafood restaurant on the corner of Fourth and Spurgeon streets in Santa Ana and transformed it into an industrial-style tavern with beer taps on the wall, acid-washed-copper detailing and exposed black piping overhead. Family members jumped in on the business: Bob became the restaurant's facilitator, while Jason's brother, Brandon, worked as the floor manager.

Next came assembling a kitchen team, which Quinn cobbled together using referrals from chefs, friends, applicants and even his ex-girlfriend.

"I learn so much here, and I get yelled at every day," says Natasha Schneider, who was stuck in culinary-school hell until Quinn invited her to join the Playground. "I just want to be good."

Quinn pounded into the crew his restaurant philosophy, which oozes out of every entrée, appetizer and dessert. The Playground burger, a mix of 50 percent grass-fed wagyu chuck, plus brisket and dry-aged American rib-eye, is cut by hand and ground multiple times. Butter is hand-churned. A S'mores tart has a homemade marshmallow fluff brûléed to order.

The restaurant became a sensation almost immediately—and then came the meltdown.

Last month, Yelper "Naseem M." of Santa Ana wrote a scathing review of the Playground, complaining about the mandatory 3 percent gratuity, its refusal to cook beef any way other than rare or medium-rare, and a flurry of other details ("Sous vide chicken? Seriously? Flavorless and a direct copy of David Chang at Momofuku—except Chang is brilliant"). But for Quinn, it was the reviewer's line about his family "walking around endlessly trying to be restauranteurs [sic]" that set him off. The chef fired back, "How fu*king cheap are you?" and "I WISH I WOULD HAVE PAID FOR YOUR BEERS AND KICKED YOU THE FU*K OUT OF MY RESTAURANT" He closed with "Burn in hell."

"I did everything I could to make them happy," Quinn says. "I told them they did not have to pay. They let themselves leave angry. They ruined their own time."

The story quickly went viral, with people debating whether Quinn crossed the line. He's sure he lost customers because of his response, but the week after the ordeal appeared in the news, the Playground was more packed than ever, with more than 30 people approaching him to profess they admired what he did. As an added act of defiance, the Playground added "Burn In Hell" Shrimp to the menu.

"Everyone who works in hospitality dreams of telling someone to fuck off and getting to tell that customer who's awful, 'You know what? You suck,'" Quinn says, his voice booming and hands flailing. "I was just pissed-off and believe in what we do. We will not be taken prisoner. We have a responsibility to our customer, and the customer is always right—until they are wrong. We're gonna cook the best food we know how, and the people who understand it will love us, and we believe that will be enough to support us, and if it's not, we'll go down swinging, knowing we tried our best, and I can sleep at night."

* * *

RULE NO. 4: PEOPLE MUST CARE
By care, he expects his kitchen staff to work the same grueling 70-hour workweek and give the food the same excruciating attention he does.

Quinn holds up a scarlet turnip that came from County Line South near Indio, then carves out with a knife any speck of dirt or imperfection. The process is impossibly slow, but simply washing it would make it lose its luster. "This thing came from a seed in the ground," Quinn says. "It was nurtured by a woman who really, really cared. We have the opportunity to make it better than it was, which is a really, really cool thing to do."

He adds, "With everything, we want to tell the story of it. Everyone's had a turnip before, but, wow, this is a scarlet turnip. There's a reason why people come here, and it's not to have run-of-the-mill food."

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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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