Karen Small’s Sweet Sixteen

Back in the 1970s, Flying Fig owner and executive chef Karen Small was living as a self-described “back-to-the-land hippie” in the hills of southern Ohio. She and her then-husband had dropped out of Ohio University and were raising two sons—and a bevy of livestock—on a farmstead in rural Meigs County.

They cooked over a wood-burning stove. They canned their own vegetables for the winter. They had no indoor plumbing, relying instead on a well pump.

Pigs, chickens, and a few dairy cows roamed the yard. No sheep, however. She’d learned from experience that they trampled each other to death when panicked, a tendency she found depressing.

For Small, her lifestyle was the logical endpoint of the self-reliance and taste for simple, local food that her Italian grandparents had taught her. She’d grown up admiring the way her grandfather cured his own sausage and grew figs and tomatoes in his tiny backyard in Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood.

Then, one day, he came to visit.


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“Even he was like, ‘Karen, I don’t get this, this is going too far,’” she remembers, laughing. “This coming from a guy who made and drank wine in his basement that was probably 40% alcohol.”

She stuck with it, though, at least until the early 1980s, when she returned to her native Northeast Ohio in search of better schools for her sons.

“I loved living down there,” she says of her time in Meigs County. “For me, it really cemented the whole idea of farm to table. The people who had lived there for generations taught us so much about farming and canning and making things from scratch.”

Those values have guided her ever since. At the Flying Fig, her 16-year-old restaurant on Market Avenue in Ohio City, she buys as many ingredients as possible from Ohio farms and local food artisans. Classic menu items, such as burgers, chicken paillard, and even baskets of bread and butter, are made from Ohio-grown products. For much of the year, salad greens come from the Ohio City Farm, the six-acre plot behind the West Side Market, steps away from the Fig’s front door.

She’s been rewarded with a reputation for being one of the city’s best chefs, and one of its earliest and most dedicated advocates of cooking with local ingredients.

“Good ingredients make good food,” Small says. “That’s always been my mantra. You just let them stand on their own.”

 

Local food pioneer

Finding quality ingredients in Northeast Ohio used to be a lot harder than it is now. In the early days of the Fig, which opened in 1999, and during several other restaurant ventures that predated it, Small used to rack up major miles on her car collecting fresh ingredients from family farms throughout Northeast Ohio.

“I was acting crazy, driving out to Geauga County and going to farmers markets and loading this stuff up in my backseat,” she says. “Everyone was saying, ‘why doesn’t she just call the produce guy?’” referring to the large produce wholesalers who supplied most restaurants then and now.

But Small’s persistence is part of what’s made Cleveland’s farm-to-table scene so vibrant today. She and other locally oriented chefs at that time, including Cleveland restaurant legend, Parker Bosley, created a level of demand for local products that today has created a market robust enough to justify farmers delivering food to the city.

Bosley was an early mentor to Small. In the mid-1980s, she took classes with him at the Cookery in Hudson, now in it’s 45th year and known to most as The Western Reserve School of Cooking. The two have remained friends ever since.

“Of the handful of Cleveland chefs who walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk of local food,” Bosley says, “I consider her to be the number one person.”

That’s not just because of the ingredients she uses, he says, but the way she thinks about them.

Bosley stopped by the Fig a few weeks ago and ordered one of the night’s specials—a salad made with local arugula and local nectarines, topped with non-local feta cheese and shaved ham.

“I told her how wonderful it was, and instead of talking about herself or her approach, she talked about the farmers’ contribution, where the ingredients had come from,” Bosley says. “It showed how much she recognizes the importance of our food sources.”

The exchange also demonstrated another of Small’s traits, her humility, which Bosley says he’s admired since he first met her 30 years ago.

“She doesn’t try to be a television star, she doesn’t spend her time in the dining room going from table to table introducing herself,” Bosley says. “She cooks in her kitchen and that’s something a lot of chefs don’t do anymore.”

“She is a perfect example of someone who is humble, and yet who could be and has every right to be a superstar.”

 

Finding balance

Small’s down-to-earth style is reflected in the decor and vibe of the Fig itself. It’s all wood surfaces, warm colors, and glowing lights—like a hip-but-keeping-it-real friend’s downtown apartment. As she reflects on her career on a recent weekday, she sits at a window table full of tiny earthenware pots. She’s letting the succulent plants soak up the sunlight before the night’s first seating.

“And they’re giving us oxygen back,” she says, giving a wry smile. “Who doesn’t need that?”

Small says she’s trying to find a little more oxygen in her life in general these days, dialing back what she calls a tendency toward intensity and being a workaholic.

“I’m a control freak and anyone around here will tell you that,” she says. “A couple years ago I started to acknowledge that I had to let go a little bit. Life wasn’t being engaged as it should be.”

She says she’s learned to put more trust in her team, which she calls “the greatest in the world,” while still keeping a close eye on the bigger picture of food quality.

“If there aren’t the correct flavors or all the textures I want to see in a dish, or the umami isn’t coming through because some element is missing, that’s what I watch for now,” she says.

She’s also looking forward to making some changes to her offerings. As this year began, the menu started to feature not only some new dishes, but also a greater emphasis on shared and small plates. She hopes the new approach will encourage people to sample a wider range of selections.

One thing won’t change, though—her search for the best, freshest ingredients.

“Something people always tell me is, ‘I never walk away from a meal here feeling sick or over-full,’” she says. “It’s because nothing is manipulated or embellished in ways that will make your belly feel bad.”

“To be able to help farms survive and put good food on the plate and have people recognize it’s different—that’s really gratifying. It’s been the best part of this work for me.”