Worth a Fig: Karen Small's Longtime Sous Chef Helps Keep the Ohio City Flagship Restaurant Sailing Smoothly

When he gets the time, sous chef Mike Triptow likes to fish. He's not so much a catch-and-release guy, preferring to clean, filet and eat the ones he hooks. "As long as they're not the real little guys," he says.

Getting caught up in the quest for the freshest possible fish is perhaps natural for a chef working at Ohio City's 15-year-old Flying Fig, more commonly called "The Fig." Chef and owner Karen Small was a forerunner in the local foods movement in Cleveland, and despite the years of success — or perhaps because of them — the spot is still trendy and laser-focused on sustainability.

"I'm really into seafood right now," Triptow says. "I love working with fish, and we get the freshest stuff here," usually from Sea to Table, a premium vendor that has skyrocketed in popularity thanks to its overnight seafood deliveries and direct relationships with fishermen. "It's one of the reasons I love working here so much."

For a young guy with a career in the restaurant industry, which is known for high turnover rates and big egos, Triptow is somewhat unusual. He's got nearly half a decade under his belt working for Small and is a little tight-lipped about his resume, choosing to concentrate instead on his growth at the Fig.

"I worked my way up," he says. "I started as a line chef, and eight or nine months later there were some staffing changes, and I got the call."

Though he's not formally trained, Triptow credits his boss for being very supportive and promoting from within. "She's the genius here," he maintains. "I've learned a lot from working with Karen."

The kitchen in the Flying Fig is on the small side, which means that every staff member needs to work tightly and efficiently, and that there is often more than one job to do.

While many sous chefs in fine dining establishments leave the skillet work to the hourly cooks in favor of cushier tasks like expo and admin, Triptow does more than supervise line cooks and deliver orders. "Because it's a small line, I do a little bit of everything," he says, which includes everything from routine prep and line duties all the way up to fun stuff like wine tastings and crafting menu specials.

Including the dishwashers, there are 12 people who help keep this kitchen operating, all of whom Triptow says are vital to the operation of such a busy kitchen.

He laughs, "It's a zoo sometimes. You've gotta work with the animals."

Certainly, managing a professional kitchen is not easy work. Though his dinner shift doesn't start until 5 p.m., the sous chef typically comes to work around noon to check in on everything that's happened since he left around 10 or 11 p.m. the previous evening. (Luckily, Triptow lives nearby, close enough to ride his moped to and from work during the warmer months.)

"You know how it is," Triptow says of the grueling schedule. He does have a partner to help him get through it, however: executive sous chef Michael Cotworthy, whose job is equally long and varied.

"There's a lot of covering each others' backs," Triptow says. While he enjoyed a three-day Labor Day weekend, Cotworthy picked up the slack — just as Triptow does when Cotworthy gets a little time off. But the busy summer months can seem very long.

"I have a vacation coming up, and I. Cannot. Wait." There's an almost breathy excitement in his voice as he talks about plans to visit the Northwest. "Just get away and clear my head," he says.

It's safe to assume there will be some fishing involved.

2523 Market Ave., 216-241-4243. theflyingfig.com.

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