Marilou Ranta and her sous-chef, Victoria Scuderi, chat in the kitchen at The Quarry on Sept. 21. Scuderi is in her second year of culinary school at Eastern Maine Community College (Ranta is an alumna) and raced home after service to revise a school paper. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

It’s no slight against the food at the fine-dining Quarry restaurant in blink-and-you-miss-it Monson to say that you will probably remember chef Marilou Ranta long after you’ve forgotten the exact composition of your meal.

Seven elegant courses, with pickled this, glazed that and candied the other – The Quarry serves a prix fixe $105 meal – is a lot to take in, after all, and you may be weary after the long drive to the southern Piscataquis County village.

But more than those, and though through most of the meal she’s tucked away in the narrow galley kitchen, the 4-foot-11, 110-pound irrepressible Ranta makes a big impression.

After the desserts go out, she emerges from The Quarry kitchen and enthusiastically greets each diner. It’s a nightly ritual, but it’s about as far from pro-forma or slick as Ranta is from her roots across the world in a large, poor family on the impoverished Filipino island of Mindanao. She grew up in a shack with no running water, no electricity and not always enough to eat.

In the dining room, there are unforced smiles all around. Regulars get big bear hugs. Newcomers get hugs, too. “She’s a great hugger,” said Martha Lerman, a hug recipient who was dining at The Quarry for her first time on a Thursday evening in mid-September. Ranta was especially delighted to meet a Filipino couple who had driven from Massachusetts to check out The Quarry. Word about the 5-year-old restaurant “in the boonies,” as Ranta puts it, is getting around.

Marilou Ranta hugs Shannon Meredith goodbye at the end of the evening. Meredith and her husband, Rick Martell, live in Greenville and are regulars at the restaurant. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Wearing a pink Mainiac baseball cap and her newly acquired James Beard Foundation Outstanding Hospitality Award medal on a ribbon around her neck, Ranta did a goofy, happy jog between tables, arms swinging rhythmically. She zips around town on a hoverboard, despite rumbling logging trucks, and she’s rumored to have ridden her board into her fully booked dining room on occasion.


It’s not hard to picture.


The Quarry sits in an 1868 storefront on Monson’s abbreviated main street, next door to Lake Shore House (“pub and great grub”), 15 miles south of Moosehead Lake, and more than eight hours’ drive from the prestigious Manhattan-based Beard Foundation. According to the 2020 census, 609 people live in Monson, fewer than you might find in a single apartment building in New York.

But in May, of all the restaurants in all of America, the foundation singled out The Quarry for its hospitality. Previous winners of the award in a previous, and slightly different iteration (Outstanding Service), include the world-famous Alinea in Chicago and Per Se and Eleven Madison Park in New York City.

The hours of operation for the Quarry seen through the window of their building on Main Street. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Quarry lacks the trappings of the sort of place that traditionally dominated such awards. It has no PR machine backing it, no manufactured hype. Heck, the restaurant doesn’t even have a website (find it on Facebook), and if you telephone to make a reservation, there’s a good chance that Ranta herself will pick up the phone and book your table. Likewise, if your table wobbles while you’re eating at The Quarry, it may be Ranta who slips into the dining room to fix the jiggle.

The stemware is not terrifyingly delicate, the interior and the lighting not high concept. The ceiling tiles look like they might have come from a college dorm room, and the friendly front-of-the-house staff is dressed as though it’s Casual Friday at a downtown office. Don’t look for a sommelier, either; a local schoolteacher capably moonlights as the bartender. Trend-conscious restaurantgoers in search of the latest thing might find the menu (beef filet with potato mousseline, maple-glazed carrots and bourbon glaze, for one) a tad dated.


But the bubbly, straight-shooting Ranta has something no amount of fastidiously curated tableware or fancy Frette linen can equal: a genuine warmth that each evening lights up The Quarry’s slate-gray dining room.

“I really did understand why she won this prize. The hospitality was incredible,” said Sara Jenkins, chef of Nina June in Rockport and a diner at The Quarry last summer. “Even the menu – I thought was a little old-fashioned, is that the word? It’s not contemporary, Instagram this, that or other thing. At the same time, the food was delicious. It was really delicious. It was cooked with serious attention and love.

“We (chefs) all talk about putting love into our food. Everybody bandies it about, but I certainly tasted it there. I really felt the warmth in that room.”

Marilou Ranta chats with customers at the start of the evening. Since the restaurant won the 2023 James Beard Foundation’s national award for hospitality, reservations have doubled. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Ranta’s workday began at 5 a.m. (“Oh, she slept in this morning,” sous-chef Victoria Scuderi joked when she heard that Ranta wasn’t in by 4:30 a.m.), and it will end at about 10 p.m. Two hours before The Quarry opens its doors, she will take a breather that lasts barely a minute. Standing on the enclosed, unheated back porch of The Quarry – which, in the summer, adds 15 diners to the restaurant’s usual 30 covers – she looked out at peaceful Lake Hebron, just steps away, and took a few deep breaths.

Ranta, 57, said 18- to 20-hour work days are normal for her. “You have to work to be successful,” she said. She has worked hard her entire life, including stints as a live-in maid in Manila when she was a teenager and a home health aide. In North Carolina, she worked in a sewing factory. “She is the most hard-working woman I’ve ever met,” Scuderi said of her boss.


The Quarry’s pantry, and most of its refrigerator space, are on the second floor: through the dining room, into the hall and up 13 steeply pitched wooden steps. Whenever Ranta needs more flour or a head of cabbage or a #10 can of tomatoes, up and down those steps she goes. That afternoon, she will troop through the dining room carting items to the kitchen and cheerfully call out “1,001,” joking that is the number of times she has traipsed up the staircase that day. Laughing, she attributes her high energy to her daily inadvertent stairs workout – also sardines, which she eats for breakfast.

“I am here more than my home,” she said, adding that she loves her job. Owning her own restaurant is the culmination of a dream. “You never have a day off when you own a business. You have to be there to be successful.”

Marilou Ranta carries eggs to the kitchen through her restaurant. The photos on the walls are of the town’s once-thriving slate quarries. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Her days are also long because, in a way, she is running two restaurants out of the same kitchen at once, each with its own menu. She has an annual contract with the nonprofit Libra Foundation to feed the roster of artists, 10 at a time, who rotate through town for residencies at Monson Arts. A chef of a different stripe might whip up a stack of tuna sandwiches and bagged potato chips for lunch and box up a shared pan of ziti for the artists to pick up for dinner, then call it a day.

Instead, Ranta cooks individual, multicomponent meals of the sort you might order at a nice sit-down restaurant: seared tuna on a bed of Asian slaw topped with a dramatic puffed rice noodle garnish; roasted eggplant napoleon layered with maple-glazed tempeh and dolloped with homemade onion jam; freshly baked, coconut-milk, gluten-free popovers.

“We don’t have a starving artist in Monson if I am the one cooking lunch!” Ranta said. Maybe, she added, she should have custom T-shirts printed up with the line.

Four days a week, while cooking for the artists, she is also prepping the seven courses – with options – for the restaurant. Back and forth all day long, one moment stirring a pot of homemade tomato sauce for the artists, the next deveining shrimp for the restaurant diners, then back to emulsifying a vinaigrette for the artists. On top of these, on this day she has baked five individual chocolate tortes for the five couples who will be celebrating their anniversaries that evening at the restaurant.


Robert Tomlinson, an artist in residence at Monson Arts, leaves with dinner that Marilou Ranta made. Ranta prepares their meals before dinner service at the restaurant. She puts the take-out boxes in a room with a side door so the artists can come in and grab them without having to go into the restaurant when service has started. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Ranta groused, good-naturedly, that the current batch of artists seem to think she is a short-order cook. She is catering to vegans, vegetarians, the pork-averse, and the gluten-, shellfish- and cashew-allergic. Sounding like the exasperated mother of a loved but irritating teenager, she said, “I hope one day when they are very successful and very famous, they’ll remember Lulu” (her nickname).

She needn’t wait, according to Chantal Harris, director of Monson Arts. In appreciation of her food and accommodating cooking, visiting artists have given Ranta their own artwork, and an Irish photographer who was in residence in 2022 shot a highly stylized portrait of her that now hangs in one of the Monson Arts buildings.

“At the end of the (residency) sessions, Lulu ends up with more thank-you cards than I do,” Harris said. “She is integral to Monson Arts.”

Loretta Violante, an artist in residence at Monson Arts, grabs her dinner from the side room. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


The Quarry’s origin story is intertwined with that of the residencies, which were started by the Libra Foundation in 2018, central to its vision to revitalize down-on-its-luck Monson through the arts. “We needed to figure out how the artists that we were inviting to come to this small town in northern Maine were going to eat,” recalled Craig Denekas, Libra Foundation chairman and CEO. “Everybody said, ‘You’ve got to talk to Marilou.’”

Ranta had just finished culinary school at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor; she graduated at age 50 in a class with mostly youngsters. The foundation hired her and built her an institutional kitchen in which to cook for the artists. It didn’t take long before she asked if she could add a few tables on the side for diners. Sure thing, they said. Still, it was a modest ask, so Denekas was surprised when he visited that Ranta greeted him in chef’s whites and had transformed the space with stemware, dishware and white tablecloths.


“‘This is the real thing,’ I thought,” Denekas said of his first visit to The Quarry. “We didn’t ask for it and we didn’t expect it, (but) she was going to make it happen.”

Last winter, Ranta bought the building from the foundation, a purchase that she is clearly proud of: “When I look at this building, it is Lulu’s building.” Within six months, national recognition from the Beard Foundation brought a slew of new customers from Portland, Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, even France, as well as curious chefs from around the state. Her reservations doubled, and to accommodate them she added an evening, Sunday, to The Quarry’s opening hours.

Despite her obvious comfort, creativity and efficiency in the kitchen, Ranta doesn’t consider herself a chef. When she meets other chefs, “I don’t put myself in their category. I’m a cook. I’ve still got a lot to learn. Every time somebody calls me a chef, I think, ‘Oh no, I don’t belong there.’ I feel like they just made me up.”

Marilou Ranta gathers squash to prep for the evening’s salad course at The Quarry. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In any case, to her mind, food is secondary to hospitality. The best food and the best wine in the world, she said, can’t make up for lack of attention from the staff. Long after memories of a delicious meal have faded, people will remember how the restaurant treated them.

“Have a smile on your face when you greet them. Right? Act like you want them there,” she said. “Make them feel comfortable. You don’t have to be intrusive. Just be attentive of what they need. They come to have a good time and enjoy the food. Don’t hurry them. I always tell my crew, let them breathe before the next course comes out.”

A small letterboard sign in The Quarry’s front window gives hours for the “fine-dining” restaurant, but Ranta prefers to call it “fun dining!” To her, fine dining is forbiddingly formal and hushed. “Fine dining, you feel like you are prim and proper because you don’t want to stain their linen,” she said. “Nope! This is not the kind of restaurant I want.”


She doesn’t want the kind of restaurant that turns tables, either, and luckily, her arrangement with the Libra Foundation gives her enough steady, guaranteed cash inflow that she doesn’t need to. The Quarry opens at 6 p.m. four nights a week and offers just a single seating. “Your table is yours for the night,” Ranta said.

A couple toasts at the start of their evening at The Quarry. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“When I used to go to a restaurant, you want to relax, take your time, they keep hurrying (you) up. ‘Can I get you something else?’ You don’t even order dessert yet, and they are bringing you your check. They just want to sell the product. Eat it, drink it and leave. That’s not right. So I promised myself if ever I have a restaurant, (customers) can have a table until we close.”

Ranta pays close attention to all aspects of The Quarry. If she is in the kitchen calmly putting out plates at the height of service and happens to hear you are on your honeymoon, like Brandon and Emily Gaudet, of Newfield, on a September night, she will consult with head waiter Nathanial Skomars about what you are eating and what wine might suit the meal and then send out a bottle of Moet & Chandon rosé Champagne, “a gift from the chef.” Later in the evening, she will remember to check back with Skomars to see if you enjoyed it.

Marilou Ranta shows Paul Geraldez a bottle of wine. Geraldez and his wife came to The Quarry from their home in Harvard, Mass., because they heard about it from one of their Filipino friends. They were excited to meet Ranta and spoke with her in Tagalog for much of the evening. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

And if you are a famished hiker taking a “zero (off-trail) day” from the nearby 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail and treating yourself to a special meal, you, too, may get a thoughtful gift from the chef – not one, but two fat, juicy beef filets for your main course.

“That’s a long hike!” she said. “No one ever gets out of my restaurant hungry unless they don’t like the food.”



If the restaurant and the artists are getting Ranta’s full attention, her orchids, alas, are not. Ranta is an avid orchidist. In her native Philippines, fragrant, flamboyant orchids grow everywhere. In her adopted Maine, she grows hundreds of them in a pleasant, light-filled room adjacent to the dining room. The tropical plants, bonsai and potted citrus trees seem to have landed in the North Woods from the moon.

Actually, the room is less filled than it used to be. As The Quarry has grown busier – and there was that abortive and time-consuming experiment to add brunch last winter – she has lacked enough time for her hobby. She estimates she lost 100 of her collection from neglect, and she is trying to nurse another 100 back to good health.

“I brought my home to the most remote and coldest place, but I love it,” she said, as she showed a visitor a spectacular samurai orchid blossom. “Where you are is what you make of it. So here I am. I have orchids and a fine-dining restaurant in Monson, Maine.”

Along with recognition and a flurry of TV appearances and articles, the Beard award brought Ranta an offer to open a second restaurant – in Portland, the state’s foodiest town. It was tempting, briefly. But after a couple of days’ thought, she turned it down flat.

“This is my town,” she said. “It won’t be the same. No. They can come to Monson, Maine.”

She herself came to Monson in 1997 with her second husband, Bill, whose family has lived in the village for generations. His great-grandfather immigrated from Finland to work in Monson’s once-thriving slate quarries. Marilou met Bill, then a soldier, at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. (Her first husband, whom she divorced, was also an American soldier, stationed in the Philippines. He brought her to the U.S., and they have a son together.)


Marilou Ranta’s daughter Esa Ranta and her husband, William Ranta, say goodbye after dropping off beef from Pineland Farm at The Quarry. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Bill Ranta often helps at the restaurant, pitching in wherever needed, washing dishes, bringing in deliveries, lugging heavy supplies up the stairs. Their daughter Esa, 20, works at The Quarry. So does their son’s girlfriend, Becca Thomas, a radiology student who for three years now has plated salads and desserts. How did that happen?

“I just put her in there,” Ranta laughed. “Welcome to the family!”

Scuderi, the sous-chef, and Esa Ranta were high school friends, and Scuderi is a culinary student at Eastern Maine Community College, Ranta’s alma mater; Ranta likes to hire young people and train them herself. Some of the servers and dishwashers over the years played in the school band with Ranta’s kids.

Before she opened The Quarry, Ranta spent several years looking after the bartender’s elderly grandmother. And the bartender’s mother, Dawn Allen-MacPherson, is a good friend, a retired teacher who this past summer volunteered to answer the suddenly ringing-off-the-hook telephone at The Quarry. “This is a woman who can do anything she wants to,” Allen-MacPherson said of Ranta. “She is just one of those people.”

Marilou Ranta talks to her sous-chef while they prep for dinner service. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Ranta flew to Chicago with her husband, her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend for the 2023 Beard Awards. She was Maine’s only finalist in any category this year. When she won, OMG, SHE WON!, her staff and friends back home in Monson quickly mobilized to organize a parade in her honor. Ranta arrived back home and was escorted into town by the police and a fire truck; her and Bill’s 22-year-old son, Gunnar, is a volunteer firefighter in Monson (and it probably goes without saying, he lends a hand at the restaurant on occasion, too).

But after the hoopla, the applause, the glamorous weekend of parties in Chicago, the ceremony itself at the city’s spectacular art nouveau opera house and then – home in Monson – the parade, plus a party, in her honor, Ranta put her head down. A new group of artists would be arriving the very next day, and they’d be wanting dinner.

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