Best Culinary Experimentalist - 2012
Jason Quinn of Playground
220 E. 4th St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Perhaps you're the type of home cook who can whip up something delicious with nothing more than a few simple ingredients from the cupboard and assured self-confidence. Professional chefs improvise, too, but not many make it their mission to improvise nearly the entire menu every day. We usually associate that sort of high-wire spontaneity with high-dollar restaurants such as the French Laundry, but in the middle of downtown Santa Ana is Playground, where Jason Quinn runs a much more affordable, yet highly experimental kitchen. During early June, Playground's menu advised, "We got a delivery of 12 live soft-shell crabs. They're limited." That same evening, "pan-roasted, very wild mushrooms" made you aware of the very fleeting seasonality of wild, woodland mushrooms. At any other restaurant, you might feel sufficiently special to eat carefully prepared, ephemeral ingredients in those two examples. Then you realize nearly every item on Playground's insanely lengthy nightly menu is an exercise in making something delicious from whatever arrived at the loading dock that morning. It's a reminder that each meal is a snapshot of a particular moment in time that may never be repeated again.