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.