Of 11 semi-finalists announced in January, just one Maine restaurant, The Quarry in Monson, has moved on to become a finalist this year for the prestigious James Beard Awards, nominated in the Outstanding Hospitality category.

The James Beard Foundation on Wednesday announced the finalists for the awards, which honor “exceptional talent” in the restaurant industry. The other nominees for Outstanding Hospitality are The Black Cypress in Pullman, Washington; Bottega in Birmingham, Alabama; Lula Drake in Columbia, South Carolina; and Sepia in Chicago. The winner will be named in June.

The Quarry, a fine-dining restaurant that opened in 2018 in the heart of the small Piscataquis County town, reacted to the announcement in a Facebook post Wednesday: “We are absolutely speechless. It is such an honor to be nominated, and an extreme honor to be a final nominee. We couldn’t have done it without my amazing crew who is now family, and every single one of my customers who are now friends. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!”

Reached by phone that afternoon, owner Marilou Ranta was several steps beyond exuberant. She said she’d been cooking lunch for the artists in residence at the town’s Libra Foundation program – fresh fruit salad and baked crab rangoon – when her daughter spotted the news on Instagram. “I said, ‘Whaaaat? No way!’ This is amazing! In Monson, Maine! They found us! Oh my god! I mean, we live in the boonies. It’s not supposed to happen.

“This is my wildest dream,” continued Ranta, who grew up on Mindanao in the Philippines. “I never shoot for that, because that’s beyond my dream. I have to go to my doctor today. I said, ‘Don’t check my blood pressure because I am so excited!’ ”

At The Quarry, she cooks the sorts of dishes that Americans have grown up on, she said, but with a twist from her homeland. So, for instance, filet mignon might come with jackfruit jam and shallots, or for brunch, she tops eggs benedict with tocino, a Filipino cured pork, in place of Canadian bacon.


Asked about her style of hospitality, Ranta said she likes to put her customers at ease, asking them what they’d like to see on her menu, what food they grew up eating, and unfailingly baking chocolate tortes for birthdays and anniversaries. The cakes come with a side of her own singing and dancing. “I am not a singer or a dancer. I am a cook. But I am going to sing anyway. We call it fun dining, instead of fine dining.”

Beard Foundation judges bypassed restaurants, and chefs from better-known restaurants, in far better-known Maine food destinations – Portland, for instance. Among those passed over were Tony Pastor of Fore Street and Isaul Perez of Isa Bistro, both in Portland, and Sara Jenkins of Nina June in Rockport. All were semi-finalists in the Best Chef: Northeast Category.

Last year, five Mainers were named James Beard Awards finalists, or nominees, as the foundation calls them, though none went on to win an award. In 2004, Sam Hayward won Maine’s first James Beard Award. Since then, many Maine chefs and restaurants have been nominated, and a smaller number have won an award.

The James Beard Awards have recognized “exceptional talent in the culinary and food media industries” since 1990. New in recent years, however, is the organization’s emphasis on more than good food, service, wine or writing. Judges are also asked to evaluate candidates for their “commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.”

This year’s chef and restaurant winners will be announced at a gala on June 5 in Chicago – which happens to be exactly five years to the day that The Quarry opened. The gala is always held on a Monday, to allow chefs and restaurateurs, who typically don’t work Mondays, to attend. Media award winners will be announced on June 3.

Public input is solicited each year to help put together the list of semi-finalists. The finalists and winners are chosen by volunteer Beard judges from the fields of food and beverage, and food media.

The other 2023 semi-finalists from Maine were Krista Cole of Sur Lie in Portland and Gather in Yarmouth, who was nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur and Outstanding Hospitality awards; Atsuko Fujimoto of Norimoto Bakery in Portland, who was nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker (she was a finalist last year in the same category); Jason LaVerdiere of Flux in Lisbon Falls, for Best Chef: Northeast; Courtney Loreg of Woodford Food & Beverage in Portland, also for Best Chef: Northeast; The Jewel Box in Portland for Outstanding Bar; and Wolfpeach in Camden for Best New Restaurant.

Wednesday’s announcement was made from the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville.

But whatever happens in June, Maine has already taken home one James Beard Award this year. In February, Nezinscot Farm in Turner won an America’s Classics award, one of six restaurants nationwide to be named for the honor, which celebrates “locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.”

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