Jason Quinn Will Meet You at the Playground
RULE NO. 1: NO KETCHUP
Jason Quinn loves ketchup, but he won't serve it because he can't make ketchup that is "not evil." Heinz and Hunt's, he says, use "garbage" such as high-fructose corn syrup in their products, and therefore "have no regard for the people who are eating them."
"Everything [I make] is made from scratch and is beautiful, so how can we say, 'Hey, we worked for eight hours to make these French fries, but we're gonna serve you ketchup that we got out of a can?'" he says. "Those things do not equate with each other."
* * *
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.
"So the honeycomb tripe is coming in tomorrow, so are the sweetbreads, so are the trotters," Quinn says. "We're getting Jidori livers that we'll have to soak for a day, and we'll do a really sexy mousse of those."
"You don't want to do it Jewish chop style?" a sous chef asks.
"I'm doing that for the second course of the Death Row Meal."
"Word. That was good with the bourbon."
"I'm gonna put some bone marrow in it, too. Just get real slutty."
Quinn is sitting with his kitchen staff at a narrow communal dining table at the Playground, the downtown Santa Ana restaurant he opened three months ago. It's just after 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, the staff's day of intense prep, and he and sous chef Frank DeLoach are discussing the week's menu with the zeal of dorm-room buddies hovering over a Scarlett Johansson Maxim spread.
"I gotta tell you, I'm rock-hard for the fucking country ham with the pan con tomate," Quinn says, with no hint of irony.
Dressed in jeans and aprons, Quinn, and five other young chefs—a "ragtag group of dedicated lunatics," as Quinn says—skim through handwritten grocery lists, mentally noting what they have to do before heading back into the kitchen at 8 a.m. the next day, ready to hand-grind burger meat, braise octopuses and knead masa to make fresh tortillas. Quinn, the leader of the lunatics, hashes out the plans and types them into his MacBook. He has close-cropped, brown facial hair and crystal-blue eyes and speaks with the speed and intensity of an impassioned union organizer, his hands punctuating every statement.
"Oh, we're also getting a case of rabbit," he says. "I was thinking it'd be really cool if we took all the front quarters off and do, like, chicken wings, so it'd be, like, buffalo rabbit wings."
"With carrot sticks!" says April Ventura, another sous chef.
"Can we call it Buffalo Bunny Wings?" asks chef Brad Radack. He pauses and adds, "I'm such a sick fuck."
The menu will also feature a rack of prime-grade pork spareribs rubbed with coffee, braised overnight, smothered with molasses and served whole. It's a 4.5-pound beast, and since the Playground doesn't have any plates big enough to handle it, servers will bring it to guests on a sheet pan.
"It's such a joke," Quinn says. "We had this rack of ribs and couldn't figure out how to portion it fairly, so we just decided to serve the whole fucking thing."
The Playground's menu changes weekly, daily, hourly even, depending on what looks good at the markets and whether the chefs are feeling mustard cabbage or crispy apples or, fuck, both, served together, drenched in bacon fat. The push for every meal to be more memorable than the last has made 25-year-old Quinn a walking Tilt-A-Whirl: brainstorming, scouring for quality ingredients, cooking, tasting, altering and tasting again, moaning food-as-sex metaphors after each glorious bite.
It's also made him one of the most talked-about chefs in Orange County in years and has sent his career on a trajectory that makes a J-curve seem as arching as a cutting board. In a place where you can't drive a mile without passing some fast-food edifice, Quinn—the co-winner of Season 2 of Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race—is enthralling the county's food scene with playful comfort dishes and a staunch defense of his restaurant doctrines. Scribbled on the chalkboard wall are house rules that are never, ever broken. Last month, Quinn was both blasted as a hotheaded snot-nose and hailed as a service-industry hero after he responded to a bad Yelp review with a rant that ended, "Burn in Hell."
At the Playground, you can't always have it your way, but for the devout fans who arrive each day, hungry to discover what Quinn will be serving, that's exactly the way it should be.
Quinn wraps up the meeting, sending the chefs off to their stations. "Let's break down those 10 chickens today and get them marinating in some, like, really awesome marinade," he tells them. "Something incredibly flavorful."
"Can we do Asian brick chicken?" Radack asks.
"We can do anything!" Quinn cracks.
* * *
RULE NO. 2: RARE OR MEDIUM-RARE ONLY
Quinn says the meat the Playground uses is such high quality and the sous vide cooking technique so wonderful that it "guarantees a perfect medium-rare every time." If customers try it and can't stomach it, the chefs will grill it up. In fact, if guests try anything on the menu and don't like it, they don't have to pay for it. "Nobody forced you to come here," he explains. "We didn't advertise, saying, 'Hey, Best Happy Hour in Town.' We keep to ourselves, we do things our way, and we try to cook the best damn food we know how."
* * *
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.
"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.
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."
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."
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."
* * *
"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.
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."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.