The chef’s story: Ron “Puppy” Cavallo of Soigne

Puppy, owner of Soigne in Edgartown, started his restaurant career at The Seafood Shanty when he was 12. — Photo courtesy of Soigne

Martha’s Vineyard has no shortage of restaurants, and behind each one, there’s a top-of-the-line chef. The Times decided to get to know these culinary wonders and share their stories each week.

Ron Cavallo, known as “Puppy,” is owner-operator of Soigne with partner Diana Rabaioli. The renowned, upscale gourmet market is located at 190 Main Street in Edgartown. Slight and wiry of build, Puppy possesses just the right amount of manic energy to keep the quality of the prepared foods excellent and customers coming back season after season. For more information on Soigne, call 508-627-8489.

How did you come to be on the Island?

I was born here. My grandfather came here in 1938 to open up a kitchen at the [Edgartown] Yacht Club. Every year he would get lonely for his family and bring them down from New York during the seasons. I forget how many months a year he would stay. So, I was born here during one of those seasons because there was a hurricane. We were kind of trapped here. Last day of high school, I came back to the Island, and I’ve been here ever since.

How and when did you start cooking?

I started working at The Seafood Shanty for Bob Carroll when I was 12. I worked there for 11 years. I started as a dishwasher my first year and worked my way up to chef. Bob Carroll was my mentor. He sent me to school at the University of Mass. I took the hotel/restaurant program. Eventually he sold the restaurant, and I went on to be a chef.

How did you come to be at Soigne?

I worked in Boston, Florida, New York. I worked at the Waldorf Astoria, and I worked several restaurants on the Island. I was chef in all of these places, then I decided to open up my own place after so many years. Soigne opened 30 years ago. Isn’t that amazing? I reflect back on it sometimes because it’s just been a blur. Thirty years. I just can’t believe it. I always considered myself to be the new kid on the block. Thirty years later, I’m one of the oldest and longest owner-operated food businesses in town. There’s a handful of us left.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

Of course. Who hasn’t? When I was working at the Waldorf Astoria, the king of Saudi Arabia was having room service up in his suite. I think there were maybe 10 of his subjects with him. The cook in the kitchen made him lamb. The king had no teeth. Don’t ask me why the king of Saudi Arabia, with all his money… I think it was [King] Faisal. This was in 1979 or 80. He had no teeth so we had to purée everything.

It was too salty. The room service captain came down and said, ‘Oh, my God, the king didn’t eat. And if the king doesn’t eat, no one eats. This is going to be an international disaster.’ So I whipped up another dish — lamb — puréed it of course, and put no salt in. The king accepted it, everybody ate, everybody was happy, and the price of oil did not go up.

Was there an occasion when a dish of yours was part of a large, important event?

I made fried chicken for Muhammad Ali during training for Joe Frazier. Do you believe it? That’s what he wanted. Fried chicken. And he was in training!

What is the single best bite you’ve eaten in the past week?

I had curry in India. It was fabulous. The blend of spices they put on there was phenomenal.

What is your favorite dish on your menu?

Occasionally we make osso bucco: braised lamb shank or veal in red wine. So delicious. That’s my weakness.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your girlfriend?

Broiled lobster. It’s her favorite. I make a stuffing with little pieces of seafood, oysters, and Ritz Cracker crumbs.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Saffron, curry (that I make), Himalayan salt (the pink stuff, the best salt on earth), garlic, shallots.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

A paring knife. I like to make vegetable flowers.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect MV Feast.

Bouillabaisse, using fresh local shellfish, in tomato saffron broth base.

What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?

If I had a day off, I would work in the herb garden.

If it could be anywhere in the world, where would you open your second restaurant?

Italy. Probably Rome. I have friends in Rome and I know that Italy is up-and-coming in the convenience food world. My cousin was telling us that now his wife wants take-out all the time where everyone used to cook at home. So I think we’d be getting in on the ground floor.

What would you be if you weren’t a chef?

A writer. Maybe a poet. I’ve done things like that.