At 4 a.m. in Monson, when the main street is quiet, Marilou Ranta arrives at The Quarry, wearing her white chef’s coat and a “Queen B” embroidered trucker hat. In the kitchen, singing along to disco songs, Ranta (or “Lulu,” as everyone knows her) preps for a menu that might feature baked pork belly with pickled apples and char-siu sauce, Cornish game hen with adobo sauce, or seared scallops bathed in a strawberry jus. In a small town at the edge of the north woods, with a population of just 600, that type of cooking stands out. But what really stood out to James Beard Foundation judges, bestowers of national culinary prestige, was Ranta’s impeccably warm, welcoming service, which won her this year’s Outstanding Hospitality prize, given for serving “as a beacon for the community” and demonstrating “consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, hospitality, and operations.”
Ranta’s initial reaction to even being nominated was disbelief. She grew up in the Philippines, fishing and foraging for every meal — what she calls “farm-to-table to survive.” When she was 21, she moved to the U.S., and she didn’t enroll in the culinary program at Eastern Maine Community College, in Bangor, until 2015, when she was 47. Five years ago, the nonprofit Monson Arts hired Ranta to cook for its rotating troupe of artists in residence. She accepted the position on the condition that she could also use the kitchen to run a restaurant (and, last year, she bought the building). Now, stop in for a meal and chances are that Ranta will dance over to ask, “What do you think?”
How did you wind up in Monson?
My husband grew up here. He was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and that’s where we met. He brought me here one Christmas when we were dating. And I’m like, “Oh my god!” And he goes, “I know, it snowed a lot. It’s really rough in the winter.” And I’m like, “No, you don’t understand. You live in a winter wonderland!” The trees were full and bending. I see all the Christmas lights. I said, “This is the Thomas Kincaid postcard!” So he proposed, and we moved in ’97. My kids are the fifth generation to live in the house his great-grandfather built. That’s why we named my restaurant The Quarry, because his great-grandfather came from Finland to work at the quarry.
What did it feel like to be shortlisted?
Scary, because I’ve never talked about James Beard. To me, that’s for elite chefs. I work hard for my artists and for my guests. That’s what I strive for. But James Beard, now you have the accolades, now comes all the expectations. And I can’t even call myself a chef. My husband and kids say, “Mom, you’re a chef.” I say, “No, I’m not a chef. I’m a cook.” Chef, for me, it’s too formal. I’m not formal. But I mean, James Beard is a huge honor. That’s beyond my wildest dream.
Where did you get your knack for hospitality?
It’s our culture in the Philippines. You go to visit someone’s house, they’ll give you their last chicken. And you eat first. Ask any Filipino, that’s part of our culture. My culinary professor said, “Lulu, if you open your restaurant, no matter where, people will come because they want to come and see you.” And it’s true. How lucky can I get? A lot of people doubted me when I said I’m going to have fine dining in Monson. They said, “Who’s gonna afford that?” But we’ve been here five years. I still pinch myself. Sometimes, I go across the street and look at the building. This girl from the Philippines, in the barrio, owns that big building. It’s my restaurant. Is that really for me? Or, I’m just dreaming?
You always seem to find time to visit the dining room, even when the kitchen’s really busy.
I want to see who’s enjoying my food. I want to hear: is the food good enough? Have that one-on-one conversation. When you go to a restaurant, sometimes you don’t see who makes your food, and I never want that. And, of course, getting new friends every night. To me, it’s an extension of our home. People come here, and they can dress down, they can dress up. You know, I had some people come here, they said they saved money just to come because they want to see how it feels. That to me is like, oh my god. So I said, “Welcome to The Quarry. Dinner’s on us.” They believe in me. They want to come and see me. Those are my James Beards.