On the Big Island of Hawaii, homemade Italian meets Hawaiian at chef James Babian’s Pueo’s Osteria, Waikoloa Village. “One of our biggest-selling dishes is wild-boar pappardelle,” Babian says. “We braise local wild boar and serve it with braised Kekela Farms kale and toss it with homemade pappardelle noodles.” The chef is as proud of his relationship with local growers as he is with that of the Italian producers of the San Marzano tomatoes, “00” flour, and prosciutto de Parma that are key to his cooking.
Babian has been at the stove for more than three decades. Raised on the East Coast, he then studied at the California Culinary Academy and began life in Hawaii in 2000, when he was chosen as executive chef at the Fairmont Orchid. Moving to the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai in 2007, Babian headed six operations, including the restaurant and 24-hour room service. He has also served as president of the Kona-Kohala Chefs de Cuisine. Voted by the American Culinary Federation as Big Island Chef of the Year in 2006 and 2007, Babian has reached a wider public through TV spots on the Food Network and the Today show.
Deciding to take his cooking life to a more laid-back, intimate setting, Babian mined his Sicilian roots and opened Pueo’s Osteria in 2013, with his wife, Christine. In Kona, pueo is an indigenous owl, a good namesake for a restaurant that brings in locals and visitors and also a gaggle of fellow restaurant folk after hours. The late-nighters devour dishes like ricotta gnocchi with local Hamakua mushrooms, prosciutto, and peas; or cacciucco, a brothy seafood stew of Kaua’i shrimp, among other fresh local catch of the day. And when Babian isn’t feeding his guests, he may well be overseeing the growers’ symposia that he’s organized for several years, in which cooks and producers collaborate to come up with new ways to grow and thrive on the islands.