Food aficionados tend to cringe when their favorite chef gets starry-eyed and starts to talk of expansion. It isn’t that diners don’t want chef/entrepreneurs to succeed — the best restaurants have always been built on good word of mouth — it’s just that no chef can be at two places at once. The fear is that once someone branches off to second and third locations, the original magic will fade. This point has merit: Many chefs, craving more regular hours and more stable finances, have expanded too fast and spread themselves too thin. Left behind are those ethereal, indefinable ingredients that make special restaurants special in the first place.
Orange County’s new wave of high-profile, passionate chefs know that expansion requires thought. Diners now have more options than ever and are keenly tuned to recognize when their favorite spot loses its edge. Instead of taking every dollar thrown their way, chefs Greg Daniels, Jason Quinn and Deborah Schneider are setting a trend of chef-owners who fight for creative control, maintain brand identity and refuse to be everything for everyone.
GREG DANIELS – Knowing the Neighborhood
When Greg Daniels started serving modern comfort food at Haven Gastropub, in Old Towne Orange, he never imagined just how quickly he would feel bonded to the surrounding neighborhood. “We came in not knowing that Haven would be as popular as it is,” he explains. “We’ve had incredible support from this community from the day we opened — they’ve really embraced us.” As a result, Daniels and his business partner Wil Dee soon began dreaming of a second concept in the same neighborhood. But before they could get to that, they started Taco Asylum at The CAMP in Costa Mesa and Haven Brewpub in Pasadena.
“Taco Asylum was a happy accident,” Daniels says. “We saw the space, which was already built out to fit a taqueria and that was something we immediately had a concept for. I had always really wanted to do a food truck with gourmet tacos… so this was my chance to do something in that vein. Haven in Pasedena came up shortly thereafter (2011) and it was something we jumped on because there was a brewery inside.”
This year, Daniels and Dee got their chance to kick off a second concept in Old Towne Orange, just a few hundred steps from Haven Gastropub. Their idea was a bottle shop/charcuterie/deli called Provisions Market — a place for consumers to purchase products that Daniels likes. “We feel like we have our finger on the pulse of Old Towne Orange,” he says with pride. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to do Provisions so badly.”
In June, Provisions opened to swarming crowds of friends and Haven fans (and those seeking out free donuts). Daniels was behind the counter on opening day and he plans to be there at least through the summer. “What we do is chef-driven,” he explains. “So it naturally requires a lot of oversight. Right now that means me being here, connecting with people so that we can start strong.”
For as quickly as Daniels has gone from one venue to four, there’s nothing haphazard about his growth. In fact, every move seems to be the result of careful, methodical calculation.
“It’s been exciting to spread our brand and we want to do more of that,” he concludes. “But we take a lot of care in deciding what exactly the next best thing is.”
It’s that element of care, and Daniels’ connection to the community that helped his career take off, that will keep his various projects focused and foodie-worthy.
JASON QUINN – You and Me and All Our Friends
A significant piece of the branding for chef Jason Quinn’s Playground DTSA is a phrase scrawled in chalk on the wall of the restaurant (and tattooed on the arms of most of the kitchen staff, Quinn included): “You and me and all our friends.” The phrase brings Quinn back to his time in Isla Vista, in Santa Barbara County, when going out was a more the merrier affair. Later, the slogan came to reflect the “It takes a village to run a good restaurant” mentality that Quinn ascribes to. “When we started out we needed so much help,” he says. “And we got it. People were working for gift cards, working at our cost, so that we could make a go of it. That’s the sort of support that you dream of as a chef.”
After Quinn’s The Lime Truck won Food Network’s "The Great Food Truck Race" in 2011, he launched The Playground in downtown Santa Ana. Since opening, the restaurant’s rise has been meteoric. Along the way, Quinn has cultivated the sort of über-passionate fans that chefs crave. He’s done it by having a crystalline sense of his identity — and refusing to water down his philosophy. “A perfect story to illustrate our mentality,” Quinn offers, “is when someone comes in and says: ‘I drove forty minutes to get here, so I don’t need you to tell me what I have to have on my burger.’ To which my response is always the same: ‘You drove forty minutes to get here and passed six In-n-Outs on the way. They would have made it just how you like. But you came here, to try our food… don’t you want to eat it the way we cook it?’”
The answer is usually “yes.”
When it’s not, Quinn is happy to cancel out a bill in order to get rid of a customer who won’t open up to the Playground experience. “We make about eight cents per dollar,” he says. “That’s too tight of a margin to make me want to deal with someone who is going to be a problem.” Surely this turns some diners off (Quinn’s famous Yelp war-of-words with a disgruntled patron has been written about often and doesn’t bear repeating), but it’s the “this is me, deal with it” vibe that leaves true fans buzzing about Quinn’s ever-changing menu, his flair for the dramatic and his experimentation with new techniques.
The next incarnation of this mentality comes next door to the Playground at 2.0 — a 17-seat chef’s table concept in which Quinn and his team serve food for an intimate group of diners-in-the-know. Quinn describes the idea of 2.0 thusly: “It’s a chance for us to tell the stories of truly special ingredients, the sort of ingredients that demanded to be handed over by a chef. It was a passion for high-end ingredients that necessitated this space.”
Like its big brother, word of a dinner at 2.0 is shared from foodie to foodie (neither venue has ever paid for ad space). Once the curtain goes up on one of these exclusive meals, Quinn and his team busy themselves cooking, telling stories, sharing slides and laughing along with customers. As Quinn continues to dream his future into reality, he does so with support from his wife and dad, who both play an integral role in operations. It’s a family affair, based in passion — just a chef and his friends — exactly how it started.
DEBORAH SCHNEIDER – Changing How We Think About Baja Cooking
Like Quinn, chef Deborah Schneider of SOL Cocina knows her style of cooking. In fact, she’s made sure it’s defined and has espoused her take on Mexican food in a collection of cookbooks. After three decades in the kitchen, Schneider launched SOL Cocina in 2008 with the help of partners and investors.
“We’ve learned a lot about people’s expectations for Mexican food,” she says. And how different they are than my experience working with Mexican cooks on the line and in my travels through Mexico.”
With SOL and in her cookbooks, Schneider wants to help redefine how we think about Mexican cooking.
“The idea is to bring a Mexican sensibility to the food rather than what I call the ‘Death Hubcap of Sludge’ that American-based Mexican restaurants have popularized,” she says. “We wanted to focus on really fresh, quality ingredients with a Mexican flavor profile.”
Building on the success of SOL locations in Newport Beach and Scottsdale, AZ, Schneider decided to launch a taco concept inspired by her travels through Baja California.
“The expansion was demand based,” she explains. “If you look at our menu, what sets us apart are the specialty tacos. And they were something that people really went for.”
The result is solita tacos & margaritas, which will open in Huntington Beach at the beginning of September. The idea is to reflect the Sonora and Chihuahua vibe, using both a wood grill and a smoker.
“We wanted to zoom in and make it street specific,” Schneider says, “I love that wood-smoky flavor.”
Knowing that every guest is sure to come in with their own expectations for what defines Mexican food, Schneider’s approach to growth is an extension of her own cooking-DNA.
“I’ve been cooking for 35 years and I’ve done everything — I love really simple food prepared with high quality ingredients,” she says. “All of my food begins with me in the kitchen, imagining and thinking up ideas. I don’t think about impressing people, as much as I think about what I really like doing and what I really like to eat. Right now, that back to basics idea of being hunched over a fire pit with a goat on a skewer — really inspires me.”
With 30 years of experience and five cookbooks under her belt, Chef Schneider never feels the need to be a people pleaser. She knows who she is and what she’s all about.
“If you try it the way I cook it, I think you’ll love it,” she says. “And if you don’t… that’s okay too.”