MONSON, Maine — Marilou Ranta never considered herself or her restaurant elite like the culinary gems of Portland, Boston and New York that typically receive national recognition.
But last week, the Philippines-born chef, who owns a fine dining restaurant in the small Piscataquis County town of Monson — or “the boonies,” as she likes to call it — found herself at an opera house in Chicago, buzzing with nerves and surrounded by culinary luminaries from across America.
On the day of her restaurant’s fifth anniversary, she gave an acceptance speech for a distinguished James Beard Award for Outstanding Hospitality, saying she never dreamed of such success.
The James Beard Awards are among the highest accolades in the country’s culinary and food media industries. Ranta’s restaurant, The Quarry, was the only one of 10 Maine semifinalists to advance to the finals.
The award is not only an honor for Ranta but for the entire town, which last week welcomed her home with champagne and the blaring sirens of fire trucks during a surprise parade. Local leaders and residents were thrilled for Ranta and said The Quarry’s win can only mean good things for their community, known for its slate quarries, furniture-making and artists building a hub of diversity at Monson Arts.
“For me, it’s just like, wow. My hard work paid off, and they found me,” said Ranta, who apologized for her hoarse voice, a result of all the recent excitement. “And for the town and my crew, it’s a huge honor. These are young kids and college students who have never worked in the culinary world or hospitality industry.”
Calls and Facebook messages for reservations have increased since the restaurant, which serves American dishes with a Filipino twist, was nominated in late January. The restaurant is booked through June and part of July, though it accepts reservations months in advance because many diners come from other parts of Maine and out of state.
Ranta, who family and friends call “Lulu,” will continue running the restaurant as she has since it opened in 2018, serving no more than 30 guests to preserve the intimate atmosphere. It also gives her a chance to go around and meet those dining in, many of whom leave as friends, she said.
Even though Ranta’s family — she’s the youngest of 12 children — didn’t have much growing up on the island of Mindanao, that attentiveness stems from her upbringing and Filipino culture. If guests are over, they eat before anyone else, and sometimes it means killing one of your chickens and giving it to a neighbor because that’s how people care for one another, she said. It’s how she runs her restaurant.
“Hospitality is the most important thing you can give to your customers,” said Ranta, her white chef’s uniform splattered with chocolate. “Even if your food isn’t what they expected but you made them feel welcomed and important, they will remember you.”
In the spring, Ranta began serving brunch three days a week — no reservation needed — which is a more affordable option for locals who still want a taste of Ranta’s culinary creativity.
Bill Volante, a Monson resident who has never dined at The Quarry, has tried Ranta’s cooking elsewhere and said it was “out of this world.” He was one of dozens of locals who showed up to celebrate her homecoming, where she lovingly flaunted her medal, which brought everyone a little joy.
“That was a special moment,” he said. “That’s a prestigious award. That’s nationwide. She really deserves it. She’s a big person in this town.”
The recognition is positive for the town and “puts us on the map a little more,” Monson Public Library Director Tom Dallamora said, recalling a memorable evening at The Quarry with his family.
“We’re gradually in the process of revitalizing and turning things around from what had been a downward trend not so long ago,” he said, noting the investment from the Libra Foundation, but also more recent shifts, like young families moving in, which brings a different energy to town.
While the award is undoubtedly a big deal, what Ranta has built in Monson is bigger, said Victoria Scuderi, a Sebec native who studies in the culinary arts program at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor.
Scuderi is completing her summer externship at The Quarry, and she likes that Ranta’s kitchen isn’t like the hostile environments she previously worked in and that the chef feeds her crew after they shut down for the night.
Ranta graduated from the program in 2016 and is the first graduate of a Maine culinary school to win a James Beard Award.
“I don’t know how I got so lucky,” Scuderi said, peeling carrots for an entree on the evening’s menu. “I know that most of my classmates are frying seafood right now, so they’re going to be a little jealous when I get back.”
On Thursday afternoon, Monson was still Monson — small and rural and quaint. No momentous shift had rocked the community. Visitors in town for a summer arts workshop, whom Ranta feeds like she does the artists who come for residencies, strolled along Tenney Hill Road in the drizzling rain. The Quarry’s staff ironed tablecloths and rolled silverware in preparation for dinner.
But perhaps recognition from the James Beard Foundation means people who had never heard of Monson now know the town. Maybe they’ll go out of their way to visit, spend the day hiking Borestone Mountain, then stop at businesses to support the locals living and working there.
It’s too soon to say, but Ranta and locals are hopeful about the future.
The chef, reflecting on her award, had many people to thank, though it was because of the Libra Foundation’s desire to reinvigorate Monson that she was able to open her own restaurant instead of working for others, she said. It was like they handed her a rock, and she knew that if she continued to polish it, there was a diamond hidden inside.
“Look at this,” she said, holding up her silver medal. “It’s shiny, just like a diamond.”
BDN writer Emily Burnham contributed to this report.