Jason Quinn Will Meet You at the Playground

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

* * *

"Okra! Sprouts! Where's the togarashi?" asks Quinn, who's wearing a white chef's coat, jeans and a lime-green rubber watch as he stands at the steel counter, inspecting each plate as it passes through before a server takes it away.

It's Wednesday evening, and guests are filling the restaurant. Coheed and Cambria's "Anything for You" blares from a speaker in the kitchen. The other chefs don lime-green sweat bands on their foreheads as a joke, poking fun at Quinn's television foray. They call him "Hollywood" because he always seems to be talking to fans and reporters.

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

Quinn works the room, leaning over communal dining tables and talking to guests about the food. Sean Walsh of Newport Beach is a "Lime Truck junkie" and now comes to the Playground three or four times per week. He's most obsessed with the Brussels sprouts. "Ahhh, they're crunchy, earthy, organic, healthy," he says. "There's a twist of something daring that I can't figure out."

The Playground recently started serving Death Row Dinners: meals people would request if it were their last day on Earth. "Very few people would want their last meal to be Le Bernardin's 17-course tasting menu," Quinn says. "You want mom's cheesy potatoes. Ham. Roast chicken. Soul-soothing food."

He also started Sunday Suppers, for which the chefs use up all the remaining ingredients from the week to create a mishmash of surprise courses.

Though his first restaurant is only three months old, Quinn is already envisioning the next endeavor. "I would love to have a place that specializes in fried chicken or omakase sushi or our renditions of classic sandwiches," he says. His eyes are set on a beautiful brick building in downtown Santa Ana that once housed the offices of the Gas Co. No lease has been signed as of yet, but Quinn would like to launch a "very unique, upscale restaurant" there, saying that "everyone wants it to happen."

Tonight, Quinn offhandedly mentions to DeLoach that he fainted the night before while in the bathroom. On his way to work that morning, he ran a red light without even noticing.

"It's hard to imagine that we could keep going at this pace," says Quinn. "It's unnatural, and we shouldn't be doing it this hard. But we want to because we can and we're good enough to."

So Quinn soldiers on. The day before the Playground opened last November, the staff got matching forearm tattoos: "You, me & all our friends" has become the restaurant's mantra. Quinn has another tattoo that reads, "This too shall pass." He got it after attending his grandmother's funeral and learning that it was one of her beloved phrases.

"A lot of people see it as bad things will pass, but the way I see it, all this success, it can go away," he says. "So enjoy it while you can."

 

This article appeared in print as "Meet You at the Playground: Inside the hyperkinetic career of novice chef-turned-cooking star Jason Quinn."

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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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