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Quinn Essential

Whether on a food truck, a TV show or in his restaurants, this local chef’s on a mission to create the perfect meal.

Jason Quinn

Jason Quinn’s just 27, but his rise in the food industry has been going at high speed. He owns two restaurants in downtown Santa Ana. He was the winner of The Great Food Truck Race on the Food Network two years ago. And he’ll soon be a judge on a new MTV show called Snackdown. The fast-talking chef is quick to discuss his tattoos—they range from a Picasso to a space launch—and his love of high-quality food. He taste-tests everything and is lavish with compliments when his staff has done well. Quinn’s Playground DTSA (playgrounddtsa.com) is jammed at night. And his latest pride is 2.0, the tiny pop-up just behind it. That’s where we caught up with him.

Is it true that TV changes your life?
It didn’t change me, but it made things so much easier when we started Playground. People knew about us because of TV.

Did you use your share of the winnings to open your first restaurant?
My share was about $27,000. You can spend that in like five minutes. That money just helped us get some nicer plates and better equipment.

In two years, you’ve gone from food-truck neophyte to expert judge on a national cooking show. Are you excited about that?
I am. The MTV people just called out of the blue. I think they liked that I was young and knew food and had something to say to their audience. This is the first time MTV has tried a reality cooking show, but I think it’s going to be great.

When can we see it?
We start shooting in December, and it takes about three months to edit, so probably sometime in the spring.

Did you always want to be in the restaurant business?
I knew early on. I graduated from UC Santa Barbara as a history major. I saw that as the best way to just get through school and get my degree so I could do what I really wanted to do.

You’re basically self-taught as a chef, aren’t you?
Yeah, but you always learn from others. And you learn from your mistakes. But you correct those errors, and that’s how you learn to be creative.

So what makes a perfect meal?
Really high-quality ingredients treated simply, the right mix of temperatures on the plate, texture and technique.

Does your wife, Hillary, work with you?
Yes, she’s over at the Playground right now.

Did you have a partner in the Playground?
My father [Robert]. He’s a lawyer, and he knows everything about dealing with city regulations. I know food, but he knows how to deal with issues. I couldn’t have done it without him.

Why’d you open 2.0?
It’s an expensive dining experience. Many of our dinners are $200 per person. But the goal is to have your customers leave here thinking they’d just had the most perfect meal of their lives. It takes six and a half hours for us to put together that night’s dinner, but that’s what I love to do: Try to create the perfect meal.