Karen Small Karen Small
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Karen Small stands at a cutting board building a sandwich.

The kitchen at the Flying Fig slowly wakes up around her as they prep for lunch. A prep cook slices corn, peppers and onions next to a summer intern who divides portions of hamburger. A cook chops chicken livers. 

But Small is thinking beyond the next meal.

“Is there any broccoli downstairs still, or are we out of it?” she asks.

One of the cooks heads to the basement to investigate, but when he returns minutes later, florets in hand, Small is gone.

She’s on the phone, calling in payroll to the accountant. Throughout the day, this pattern continues. Small assembles the sandwich bit by bit, between meetings, phone calls and crises. She cooks the broccoli, then deals with the restaurant’s malfunctioning internet. She slices pork shoulder and warms it in the oven before she meets with the wine salesman. She scrounges up a slice of cheese and some bread, then guides the cable guy to the router. 

This back-and-forth between the creative pull of the kitchen and the demands of running a business is a typical day for one of Cleveland’s best chefs.

Small, who rose to prominence as a quiet champion of farm-to-table cuisine, has helmed the Flying Fig in Ohio City for the last 21 years. Though a constant stream of praise has been showered on her and her restaurant, Small is a figure better known inside culinary circles than outside. She has refrained from the empire-building that tends to elevate chefs into name brands like her peers Michael Symon, Jonathon Sawyer and Zack Bruell. Instead of massive culinary teams, multiple locations and the financial backing of investors, Small has opted to do it all on her own. When Small was named a semifinalist for the Best Chef in the Great Lakes  James Beard Award last year, along with Salt’s Jill Vedaa, her response was, “Why now?” 

But, lately, as the Flying Fig passes the 20-year mark, Small has been thinking about branching out. Earlier this year, with little public fanfare, Small opened a stand in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, her first expansion outside the Flying Fig’s footprint in Ohio City. She is putting together a menu for a neighborly breakfast place and tossing around the prospect of opening a natural wine bar.

“Maybe it is time to divide and conquer my passions,” Small says. “I know you can’t do anything without risk, or without pain. But if that could all come about, that would be really a perfect culmination.”

It began with a fish in a bathtub.

A young Small was visiting her grandparents’ second-floor apartment on Evangeline Avenue in Collinwood when she found it — a baccala. The hunk of Italian salted fish soaking in the tub would become that night’s dinner.

Grandpa and Grandma Pizzoferrato had emigrated from Italy, and brought with them their Old World culinary traditions. Her grandmother made the baccala, a traditional Italian Christmas Eve treat, and simple sheet pizzas, just bread dough spread with canned tomatoes and cheese. In their tiny yard they planted pear and fig trees, and grew veggies. They canned tomatoes and made grape jelly. Sausages they cured waited in the basement, alongside batches of homemade zinfandel. 

“It was like Italian moonshine,” Small recalls.

The way her grandparents utilized what the land gave them began to take root in Small’s own ideology and thinking. After dropping out of Ohio University in the 1970s, she moved into a Dexter, Ohio, farmhouse with a group of “likeminded individuals” on 100 acres of land. 

The group cultivated their own garden and kept pigs, cows and chickens. Their house had no indoor plumbing, just an outhouse for sewage, a pitcher pump for water and a wood-burning oven for heat. The farmer who owned it allowed them to live there for free. In exchange they watched his sheep. 

Small became the unofficial house chef, cooking vegetables harvested off the farm. She developed a passion for food, and for making it out of the ingredients you could get out of a plot of earth, such as peach pancakes made with fruit from her tree. She found she could cook for money too, first at a deli and for a joint called Chiccalini’s Pasta Palace. 

She stayed in rural Ohio for a decade, living with her husband and raising her two sons on farmland they acquired for a song. 

“That was where I started cooking,” says Small. “That 10 years formed my philosophy toward food, toward life.”

In 1984, Small moved to Bainbridge, where she and her husband purchased a small beverage store called From Grapes to Nuts. By 1988, a wave of development was pumping millions of dollars into downtown, including at Dick Jacobs’ new Galleria, the shopping mall on East Ninth Street. Small’s sister had married into the Minnillo family, who once operated the legendary Baricelli Inn. The family was opening a new restaurant inside the Galleria, called the Ninth Street Grill. Small got the top job. “Not a small amount of nepotism was going on there,” Small says. 

She was 35. It was her first big job, and she was determined not to blow it. “It was kind of like ‘fake it till you make it,’ almost,” Small says. “I was small, I was a woman. I had all sorts of things going against me.”

The Grill’s menu centered around white tablecloth classics such as steaks, fish and penne. Though it wasn’t entirely to her taste, as she cooked that menu, Small fell in love again with the city she had left. She was working downtown, amid what was then considered a resurgence, and was soon proving that her culinary voice could shout loudly. 

In a review of the spot’s opening, The Plain Dealer found the food “elegant but inconsistent.” But it praised obvious Small touches, such as house-made breads and duck pizza. The food, the reviewer wrote, summing up Small’s philosophy adroitly, was “new-looking but not fussy, hearty yet refined.” 

After a few years, and her sister’s divorce, Small moved on to the Fulton Avenue Cafe in 1991 in Ohio City, where she fully embraced the vision at which she’d gestured while at the Grill. Cooks and waitstaff went there for drinks after their shifts, so Small became the cook for the cooks, making things like pork dumplings and calamari. 

“I felt like I really had a great opportunity to really express myself there,” she says.

The Cafe closed about a year and a half later, and Small moved to Noggins in Shaker Heights before opening the breakfast spot Jezebel’s in South Russell. 

With just about 10 tables and funky, mismatched chairs, Jezebel’s was cozy and welcoming. Breakfast food, bread, sticky buns and turkey sandwiches with green apple and cheddar streamed steadily out of the kitchen on the weekends. Meals were served with nonstandard cutlery. It was down-home, but still elevated. Small loved it. 

But weekday traffic was sparse and, after a few years, Jezebel’s folded in the mid ‘90s. 

Other jobs followed, but didn’t feel like the right fit. After returning from Athens, Small had hopped between six jobs. She was spent. 

“I thought maybe I was going to get out of the business,” she says. 

On a sweltering July morning, Small cruises through the Shaker Square Farmers Market. Three empty tote bags hang over her shoulders, ready to be filled. 

She pauses to admire tables piled with Geauga County onions at the Snake Hill Farm stall. Waves of purple and green ripple down the bulbs. Small turns them over in her hands.

“Karen, are you doing the convention center?” asks Becky, the onion farmer. “I saw, maybe something big.”

“No, The Q,” says Small. “It used to be The Q, now it’s something else, Rocket Mortgage something.”

“So you’re getting into the corporate world?” Becky asks. 

“No, I’m trying to avoid that,” says Small. 

She buys $9 worth of onions, and stuffs them in a tote. 

When she opened the Flying Fig in 1998, Small used to drive to far-flung farms, and canvas farmers markets and the West Side Market to find vegetables from local

“I was a crazy woman about chasing stuff. I remember driving out to Burton to pick up beans,” says Small. “I was like, Well, have you tasted this bean? Now you know what I’m talking about.

Now farmers come to her from far and wide: veggies from the Refugee Response Farm in Ohio City, meat from Dee-Jay’s Custom Butchering in Fredericktown, carrots from Drift Hill Farm in Jeromesville, flowers from Schultz Fruit Farm in Chesterland, watermelons from Weaver’s Truck Patch, an Amish farm in Fredericksburg — just to name a few. 

Opening a restaurant was a risk for Small. She had no team of investors to back her. She was accustomed to a stable salary and benefits. But when the space on Market Street opened, she knew it was in a prime location in a revival neighborhood and right across the street from the West Side Market. Rent was enticingly inexpensive, but she still hesitated, even though her friends pushed her to do it. 

“It was the biggest decision I ever made, and I didn’t make it easily,” she says. “As a matter-of-fact, they might have drug me in there kicking and screaming.”

The timing was right. Michael Symon had opened Lola in Tremont the year before — spurring Cleveland’s turn in the culinary spotlight. Her woman-owned restaurant would acquire most of its ingredients from local famers. She wouldn’t be chasing a trend. She would be defining one. She signed the lease. 

Since then, Small has fiddled constantly with the menu, adding and subtracting based on sales, the seasonality of produce and her whims and fascinations. Her style is inflected with Mediterranean and Asian dalliances, but remains distinctly New American, in the Midwestern sense: high-brow without being condescending. 

“I’m always looking for the best, and how to perfect what we do. I’m open to the new,” says Small. “But I don’t consider myself cutting-edge. I don’t consider myself a pioneer in anything except using really good products, and making really good food.”

Small’s belief in fresh ingredients and how they could taste better than anything that came off an 18-wheeler defines the Flying Fig and its farm-to-table ethos. Just by using local ingredients in her restaurant for two decades, Small and other Cleveland chefs of her generation have made it the norm. It was a quiet revolution, fought with thousands of small choices — one ingredient, one dish and one menu at a time. 

“She’ll hate this,” says Small’s best friend, Toast owner Jill Davis, “but I’ve always considered her as Cleveland’s Alice Waters.”

Sinfully rich chicken livers, a recent appetizer, feels like basking in the afterglow of that revolution. The mellow decor of the Flying Fig signals the proletarian-posh dishes to come, such as a perfectly mid-rare Ohio beef strip steak, and a halibut served over sweet corn, Killbuck Valley mushrooms, bacon, onions and locally sourced green beans. 

“Our commitment to the local food thing was initially about the food and the taste, but it’s grown into a social, political and economic thing since then,” says Small. “It’s been a lot of awareness to people about where your food comes from, where it’s grown, who benefits from your food. That part’s changed quite a bit.”

Through it all, Small has remained humble — even under-the-radar — despite the Flying Fig’s accolades and success. 

“She has no interest in showboating or promoting herself,” says Davis. “She puts her head down and does what she does, and does it extremely well, and puts her heart into it.”

Today’s her birthday. With her curly locks pulled back in a bandana, Small jangles the key in a lock. The door opens to reveal a restaurant. 

There’s orange juice and eggs in the fridge, and bags of potatoes in the back room. Bread, gone stale, awaits toasting. Containers of maple syrup, still sticky, are ready for pouring. Chairs are lined up at the tables, as if expecting diners. 

The only signs that Jack Flaps closed in July are the pink notice taped to the front door and the envelopes beneath the mail slot.

Small, who hopes to take over the former breakfast spot on Lorain Avenue in Ohio City, heads to the shoebox-sized kitchen. With her equipment guy in tow, she starts sizing up the fridges, the prep spaces, the vent hood. 

Could a fryer go here? Will we have to get a stove, or will this flat top be enough? 

Small’s passion has always been in the cozy, neighborhood spots. “I like the comfort level of a breakfast and lunch place,” she says. So here, she wants to open one.

In the yellow notebook she carries everywhere, Small has been formulating a menu: a breakfast soup (yes, soup), a breakfast salad (yes, salad), eggs Benedict, great coffee. If things fall into place — negotiations with the landlord, a liquor license, the right equipment — she could have it up and running by winter. If not at this location, then, she hopes, another one. 

“I’ve shied away from this for so long,” she says. “To open a place like that would be like coming full circle to where I was, and why I continue to be intrigued by [breakfast].” 

Though she signed a new five-year lease on the Flying Fig earlier this year, Small is considering delegating its day-to-day operations so she can explore other avenues. 

She’s already dipped her toe into expanding with the small takeaway store and sandwich counter next-door, the Market at the Fig, which is connected to the restaurant by an archway. Her sandwich stand inside the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse is modeled and named after the space.

And on any given day, she flits in and out of the Flying Fig baking bread and mixing up dukkah, a nut-and-spice mixture, for the restaurant’s avocado toast. Between it all she does payroll, checks invoices and calls suppliers. While Small doesn’t cook the line anymore, the distinction is largely academic. 

“I’m still picking every dish apart, how the vegetables have been cooked, how they’ve been prepared,” Small says. “I still have my hands all over that menu.”

In addition to the breakfast spot, Small has been tossing around the idea of opening up a natural wine store with Davis. The two have toured a space that might work. It’s small with high ceilings, a perfect place for people to nibble on small plates and swish around trendy, organic, challenging wines. Small hopes it’ll be ready to open next year.

“I just love really good food,” she says. “I don’t need all the bells and whistles that sometimes come with it.”

It’s 6 p.m. and as Eminem blares in the background, Small returns to the Flying Fig kitchen, and another cutting board. There she’s finally assembled her sandwich: a few slices of pork belly, a garlic aioli, cooked broccoli topped with red pepper flakes and smoked cheese.

She cuts it into quarters and pops a wedge into her mouth. It’s the first substantial bite of food she’s eaten all day.

It’s good, but the smokiness of the cheese overwhelms the delicate interplay Small was looking for between the broccoli and pork.

So she goes back to the walk-in fridge, and retrieves the ingredients for another one. This time, she wilts chard in place of the broccoli and tops the sandwich with a subtly aged provolone, aiming for a meaty chord this time, not a single smoky note. She cuts the sandwich into quarters again.

“I like the chard on there,” she says. She’ll keep fiddling with it later. Maybe, if she can get it right, it will end up on the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse menu.

Over the years, Small has spent a lot of time tracking down the perfect ingredients, a lot of late nights working in the kitchen, not getting home until 10 or later. She and her husband, who was involved in the business, divorced in 2005. Her sons, Luke and Dusty, live out of state.

“It’s the family stuff that I really want to work on. Not just the family stuff — just personal relationships in general, which I think I kind of let go by the wayside,” Small says. “I just realize how darn important they are.”

“I always thought there was time,” she continues. “But then, all of a sudden it’s like, Well, I missed this. I missed that. I didn’t go.

Small put her career, the restaurant, the mission, in a place of prominence. But looking back, after more than two decades of the Flying Fig, Small yearns, in a way, to return to the farm, to the reasons she connects with food in the first place. 

She’s spent a lot of time with Davis lately, including a natural wine tasting in Cincinnati. She just got a new dog, a bernedoodle named Beans, whose main pleasure in life seems to be hurling himself onto her couch. She also took a week off for a trip to Chicago to see her grandchildren. It feels like a start.

“It’s just putting work aside, and finding that balance in life, is what I need,” she says. “It’s a little late. But it’s never too late.”

With her sandwich complete for now, Small surveys the kitchen. Dinner service is at full hum. Her cooks are tending to sizzling pork on the stovetop, dishing out steaming mussels, pan-searing crackling halibut. The floor captain dashes in and out of the kitchen, carrying plates to the dining room. 

Small is pleased.

“I wasn’t counting on such a strong crew tonight,” she says. “But I do have a strong crew. I don’t have to worry about it.”

She takes off her apron and heads home. 

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