Chefs Karen Small and Jill Vedaa make CLE history as James Beard semifinalists

For the first time in Cleveland, two local female chefs have been named semifinalists for Best Chef: Great Lakes in the James Beard Awards.

Chef Karen Small, owner of The Flying Fig (2523 Market Ave. in Ohio City), and chef Jill Vedaa, co-owner of Salt Restaurant (17625 Detroit Ave., Lakewood), are two of 20 chefs in the Great Lakes division. Their competition includes 13 chefs from Chicago, one chef from Cincinnati, two chefs from Michigan, and two chefs from Indiana. Small and Vedaa made it to the semifinals from 20,000 entries in 21 categories. 

Small credits her entire Flying Fig team with the nomination. “The Fig will soon be 20 years old, and this nomination has created an infectious pride and energy in the restaurant,” she says. “In light of the nomination, I keep thinking about how long I’ve been at the Flying Fig and all the amazing people I’ve worked with over the years. It’s the staff’s commitment to my vision that truly led to this nomination. Long before farm-to-table became a catchphrase, we made a commitment to local purveyors and, more importantly, a promise to our customers to offer clean, beautiful food.”

Vedaa sees the nomination as a triumph for not only herself, but for Cleveland as a whole. “This means a lot of me on a personal level,” she explains. “Salt represents how I want to cook, so even if I don’t get to finalist status, it’s a great boost.”

The fact that two women in Cleveland are semifinalists adds to the thrill, the chefs say. “It was highly unusual at the time to have women at the helm, but we never shied away from working and managing in a male-dominated industry,” Small recalls of the time when The Flying Fig opened in 1999. “We just did what we did. And now it’s so exciting that Cleveland has two James Beard nominees—and both of them are women.”

Additionally, Small and Vedaa are longtime friends who have worked together in the past—Vedaa was Small’s sous chef at Flying Fig in the early days of her restaurant, and she says the two have always had similar visions.

“Karen is one of my biggest mentors, if not my only one,” says Vedaa. Small is humbled by Vedaa’s compliment: “I’m incredibly flattered that Jill would say that, and I can't say enough about how she has inspired me."

In fact, Small says that inspiration can be seen in each of their individual restaurants. “If you look at our menus side by side, you’ll see an unmistakable similarity in the foods we love to prepare,” she says. “We both have a love for Mediterranean cuisine, and you’ll also find some south-of-the-border influences on our menus."

Vedaa’s Salt menu consists of small plates that change every 10 weeks—a break from the norm in Cleveland. But items such as calamari with coriander coconut glaze, white bean puree, and chicken liver pate with toasted rye and pickles (her mother’s favorite) are staples. The dishes are also remnants from her days as executive chef of the former Rockefeller’s in Cleveland Heights, which Vedaa says “was the first opportunity where I was allowed to do whatever I wanted."

“It’s kind of a scary thing to do it in Northeast Ohio, [which is often] meat and potatoes and pierogies,” says Vedaa. "It’s not a new thing. Pretty much every other state does a small plate setup. My palate doesn’t just want steak, and I’ve always been the kind of person to cook what I like to eat.”

Small’s Flying Fig menu is also a trendsetter in the Cleveland market. She may remove popular menu items, like the grilled short rib, but she says her customers always find a new current favorite, like the pan-roasted confit chicken thigh.

“Our menu varies frequently and seasonally, so it is difficult for customers to get attached to any one thing,” she says. “Fans of the restaurant seem to enjoy the spontaneity of the seasonally evolving menu and rarely balk about things that are no longer available. I’d like to think it’s because we’ve never stopped offering new and exciting menu items with each new season.”

Small and Vedaa join the ranks of other local James Beard Award-winning chefs Jonathon Sawyer and Michael Symon, and former semifinalist Zack Bruell, continuing to boost Cleveland’s food scene.

“We’re right on the edge of being an amazing food state,” says Vedaa. “We already are. Whether I get to the finals, whether Karen gets to the finals, it’s a great honor.”

Small agrees. “Hopefully these nominations will encourage visitors to check out what we have to offer in Cleveland,” she says. “The food scene here is like the little engine that could. There are a lot of hard-working, talented people creating really great food, but the quest to be recognized as a serious food destination has been a hard, uphill drive. Once people get on board, though, they see what wonderful things we have to offer.”

Small and Vedaa will find out on Wednesday, March 14, if they are among the five finalists for best chef in the Great Lakes region. The winners in each category will be announced on Friday, April 27, followed by an awards gala in Chicago on Monday, May 7.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.