Even in the world of chefs — itself a refuge for rebels and brigands of all varieties — Jason Quinn is a renegade. After winning The Great Food Truck Race in 2011 but still lacking serious kitchen experience and business acumen, the California native broke from his partners to start his own restaurant. He called it Playground DTSA (for “downtown Santa Ana,” in Orange County) to signify the approach to food that he wanted to nurture.
Like a real playground, there promised to be wild bouts of experimentation. So much so that Quinn and his team would change their menu daily based on what local produce inspired them. There would even be a few rules. No substitutions; no special requests; no exceptions.
“This place has always been about learning,” Quinn says of Playground DTSA and its sister concept, Playground 2.0. “Where I wake up every day and think ‘what do I want to make?’ From there, we try to create experiences that feel special while staying true to ourselves and cooking each dish exactly the way we like it.”
At Playground DTSA that means high concept small plates based in comfort food — like the pan-roasted Sakura Pork chops with fermented peach glaze. Next door, at Playground 2.0, the sense of play is both more pronounced and refined. I’ve personally enjoyed meals that spanned 22 courses, with each local purveyor shouted out like a featured rapper on a DJ Khaled album. Sometimes, Quinn and his team hook up a laptop to a TV screen to guide guests through a slideshow of their travels and add context to their dishes.
What always remains front and center is that California-bred spirit of fearless creativity, where big ideas are rewarded and failure is inherent to growth. Diners are invited to send dishes back without questions or judgment if they don’t like them. This isn’t just policy, it’s part and parcel to the philosophy.
“One day, I’ll open a place where it’s clear that I know what I’m doing,” Quinn says. “Right now, we’re still very much figuring it out. Which is a crazy thing to say after we’ve sold $30 million in food over the past seven years. For us to feel like we don’t really know anything yet is, I think, the opposite of what people expect.”
Quinn’s approach is beyond rare in an industry with razor-thin profit margins. But the method to his madness was never intended to work for everyone. Shortly after opening, he got into a public spat on Yelp with a diner who seemed all too eager to hate on Playground’s concept (and insulted the chef’s mother). Years later, famed food critic Brad Johnson bristled at Quinn’s refusal to modify his cup of coffee with cream or sugar. More anecdotally, every server at Playground DTSA tells stories of guests who excused themselves the second they spotted the “no substitutions” note on the menu.
For a lesser chef, these might be gut check moments. When a James Beard-award winning critic calls you a “childish hipster” it tends to make you rethink things. Not Quinn. The man has one thing that all successful California creatives share: a certainty in his purpose and an almost preternatural sense of confidence in his plan. Even when things go sideways.
“People got this idea that I think very highly of everything I do but I very rarely go home thinking ‘that was a perfect day, nothing I did could have been improved,'” he says. “That feeling is enough to keep me ultra-motivated and to continue pushing. There’s no other option — you go to bed with the hopes of being better the next day.”
The second or third time I met Jason Quinn, I was still trying to figure him out. I’d interviewed him a few times and gleefully scribbled down his energetic (sometimes curse-laden) soundbites, but I didn’t really know the chef. This particular day, I arrived at his restaurant a few hours before it opened for a pre-arranged tasting. He rushed up to me — in a fit of what I assumed was anger. His brow was furrowed and his whole body seemed to pulse with energy.
“Steve,” he said, eyes wide and unblinking, “did you have any idea when you woke up this morning that you’d be tasting A5 Japanese Wagyu beef? That’s the best beef on the planet! I’m working with it in the back and it’s just — it’s amazing!”
This moment unlocked Quinn for me. His kinetic movements, his mile-a-minute speech, the litany of curses — it all seemed to answer to the sibling Gods of the culinary world: creativity and quality. His goal, I realized, is to make food that matters to people. For that, the chef needs good products. Which is why California’s bountiful produce is so central to his ethos.
“In order to create something exciting, we need ingredients that excite us,” he says. “The dream is to get products so good that all we need to do is not screw them up.”
In service of this goal, it’s not unusual for Quinn to visit farms to check out his purveyors. And as much as it thrills him to use special cuts of meat or lesser-known vegetables, telling their stories seems equally enticing.
“The goal is to give people an experience they haven’t had before,” he says, “which means I need to source products that they haven’t had before — things that are only available to an upper echelon of chefs. You might get a farm that says, ‘we don’t want to be on the hook for 200 pounds of this special heirloom beet, if you want them you have to take all of them.'”
He pauses to make sure his message is making an impact. “What a cool story! Suddenly I’m the only restaurant in the state working with this exact beet.”
Quinn’s commitment to smart, local sourcing is a California tradition — delivered to the mainstream in the 1970s by Alice Waters, founder of Berkley’s revolutionary Chez Panisse. But it’s Quinn’s creativity that feels even more endemic to California in general (and SoCal in specific). Like a Hollywood auteur, he envisions something and then relentlessly pursues it. Like a film editor, he tinkers and modifies until he gets things right.
A few years ago, Quinn and his team served a dish called “The Quest for the Perfect Ramen” — which they numbered and changed daily. This mission was carried out for “well over a year,” Quinn says. “I never found one that fully satisfied me… which is why we kept experimenting.”
Still, the chef has a clear goal that he’s working toward. It’s not to be your local neighborhood steakhouse or the first name in generic business lunches. It’s to create layered, engaging dining experiences. The sort that surprise people. The sort that groups of friends talk about at parties. In the end, this might be the most “California” thing about Quinn — the fervent ambition to transcend the ordinary while learning every step of the way.
“All we can do is try to impress ourselves and try to make ourselves happy,” he says. “Being in California, where the purveyors and the diners are equally ambitious, is humbling. Every time I find a new passion — from bread to fermentation — I realize how far I am from ‘knowing it all.'”
The chef is right. He doesn’t know it all yet. That’s why he’s got his Playground — to act as the platform where he can puzzle over culinary questions. And as he puzzles, diners are in for the treat. Because there are few experiences in the state as much fun as tasting the answers Quinn and his team come up with.