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.”