Dressed in chef’s whites and sporting a fresh short hairdo under her baseball cap, Marilou Ranta fluttered over to a table of customers to say hello. They’d just slurped up the amuse bouche out of a porcelain spoon – a medley of melon and unpeeled pickled rambutan sprinkled with black lava salt. The rambutan, a Southeast Asian tropical fruit with a hairy red exterior and sweet fleshy fruit, would be unusual fare in most American restaurants. But at The Quarry, a restaurant that opened last June in the remote Maine town of Monson, seeing rambutan is as startling as coming across a flamingo in Baxter State Park.

Ranta grabs unpeeled rambutan, a Southeast Asian tropical fruit that she will pickle. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Monson is the last town on the Appalachian Trail, so plenty of hikers pass through. But until recently, that was about it.

Home to just 650 people, Monson had struggled for years. The town’s once famous slate-mining industry was long gone. A large furniture company folded in 2007. Industry faded, unemployment rose, and many Monson families left the lakeside town in search of work. In 2010, even the local elementary school closed.

Monson had become a place people passed through on their way somewhere else.

But about two years ago, the Portland-based Libra Foundation, which funds projects in the arts, agriculture and public recreation, began to buy up downtown properties with the goal of turning Monson into a town for the arts. The foundation is renovating the two-block downtown, transforming the once decrepit buildings into art studios, galleries, a high-end general store and artist housing.

To occupy all this refurbished real estate, the foundation is bringing some dozen artists and writers at a time to town for month-long residencies, and hosting weeklong workshops that are open to the public.

Ranta’s Quarry restaurant, where six-course meals average $60 and feature refined, likely unfamiliar Asian flavors and luxe ingredients like foie gras, is part and parcel of the big changes underway.

It’s also the culmination of a dream of restaurant ownership that Ranta has harbored since she was a teenager growing up in the Philippines. Through her cooking, she hopes to put “Monson on the map.”

PASSIONATE ‘FILIPINO REDNECK’

Ranta was born in 1966 on the island of Mindanao to a carpenter and a stay-at-home mom, the youngest of 12 children. The family was poor, and life was hard – as a youngster, Ranta survived a typhoon by clinging to siblings who were clinging to a tree. Two of her brothers swept past in the rushing water and drowned.

Artist Stewart Leeallen leaves after a meal at The Quarry in Monson. On weekends, the restaurant is open to all for fine dining. On weekdays, it serves two meals a day to artists in residence at Monson Arts. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Ranta learned to cook at a young age and says that watching her mother in the kitchen sparked her own ambition to one day open a restaurant. At age 16, she finished high school and went to Manila, where she found work as a family maid. She worked from morning to night, earning a room and $15 a month. She did the laundry, cleaned, cared for the children and the elderly, and – her specialty – cooked three meals a day. Her passion for cooking flourished.

A romance with an American soldier stationed at Clark Air Force Base on the island of Luzon eventually brought Ranta to the States. The couple married and had a child, but divorced a decade later. A year after that first marriage ended, she fell for Bill Ranta, a soldier at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and a fourth-generation Monsonite.

In Maine, Marilou Ranta is considered “from away,” but for her, Bill was the exotic one. Until they met, she’d never even heard of Maine, and she assumed his peculiar accent was Canadian. Bill Ranta brought her and her then 8-year-old son Tommy to visit Monson. And, unlikely as it might seem, she fell for his corner of Maine, too. It was the snow, she said, which she’d only ever seen on TV. “This is like a winter wonderland!” she remembers thinking. “I want to live here!”

The couple married, moved to Monson in 1997, and within a few years had two children of their own. (Today, the family – the kids are now 15 and 17 – live on the farm that once belonged to Bill Ranta’s grandfather.) Ranta took to Maine like a moose to a bog. She loves ice fishing; snowmobiling; exploring the dense nearby woods; and cooking out on Lake Hebron. Her husband calls her a Filipino redneck. “A Filipino, in Maine! Snowshoeing! Can you imagine?!” she agrees.

Over the years, Ranta worked as a housekeeper at Squaw Mountain, a chauffeur and a senior home care aide. For two years, when her husband was serving in Iraq, she also was a single mom. Throughout, she kept her hand in food, once opening a temporary food stand in the town general store to sell pan-Asian food like lumpia, fried rice and crab rangoon. But opening a permanent, sit-down restaurant remained her goal.

Finally in 2015, she took a big step closer when she enrolled at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor to study culinary arts. To get to school, she had to drive an hour and a half each way – often arriving only to learn that snow had closed the college for the day. Ranta persevered, and two years later earned her culinary degree.

As a student, Ranta was “second to none,” according to Jay Demers, Culinary Arts department co-chair and one of her professors. Though several decades older than the typical student, she was a team player, he said, who could work alongside a 20-year-old classmate, “and you’d think they were sisters.” She started school with an “innate passion” and an understanding of flavors. School taught her “the whys,” he said, as well as the nitty-gritty of the business.

Culinary degree in hand, Ranta planned to open a food truck until she saved enough money for a restaurant. Demers, impressed by her energy and talent, encouraged her to dream bigger right out of school, in part by helping her secure an externship at the upscale Blair Hill Inn in Greenville, some 15 miles from Monson.

Last March, Ranta told the innkeepers she was ready to do something different.

MINING LOCAL TALENT

Stuart Kestenbaum, artistic director of Monson Arts, said he knew from the get-go that food would be critical to the success of the artist residencies. Twenty-seven years as the director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle had taught him that sharing meals builds community among artists. By a stroke of good luck, Ranta finished cooking school about the same time Libra arrived in Monson. Kestenbaum approached her about feeding the artists.

She had bigger plans: “Do you mind if I feed other people, as well?” she asked him.

Marilou Ranta plates warm fall salad for the Monson Arts residents who eat at The Quarry. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

He didn’t. Libra agreed to convert a vacant space that it had originally intended to serve as a commissary for the artists into a restaurant. Ranta picked the color and the decor and worked closely with the foundation’s contractor to realize her vision. Under their arrangement, Libra leases the space to Ranta and contracts with her to feed the visiting artists. She runs The Quarry, which is open year-round, in the same space. Kestenbaum calls the deal a win-win.

Plain and simple, Ranta “is representative of a fascinating group of people who are the fabric of towns like Monson,” said Craig Denekas, CEO of the Libra Foundation. “There are so many talented people in Maine – musicians, artists or woodworkers or craftspeople – and it turns out someone like (Ranta) came forward, and you immediately discover she is a world-class chef and makes food that would rival any interesting restaurant in Boston and New York.”

Ranta likes to serve the artists Scandinavian food as a nod to the region’s heritage, items like pickled herring, gravlax and pannukakku, a souffle-esque pancake her husband’s grandparents used to make. (More than a century ago, the region’s slate quarries brought a flurry of immigrants to the area from Sweden and Finland, and also Wales. To this day, locals boast that President Kennedy’s headstone is made from Monson slate.)

Ranta takes care never to repeat a dish in the course of a month, so the artists can taste something new each day.

“When you go to teach a workshop in the woods of Central Maine, you’re not expecting the dining experience to be fine dining, and that’s what Marilou brings to Monson,” said Josie Holtzman, who co-taught a workshop in Monson in September. “I would definitely put on 10 pounds if I was there for a month-long residency.”

Ranta named her place The Quarry, in honor of Monson’s history. To reinforce that point, the walls of the 30-seat restaurant are slate gray. For now, she serves mostly Asian food, flavors she knows from her native land. She glazes foie gras with a syrup flavored with Chinese oranges and five spice powder. She offers a star fruit mojito sorbet, and she adds roasted coconuts to curried soup. She buys seasonal vegetables like bok choy, lettuces and other greens from Helios Horsepower Farm in Guilford, and she shops in Portland’s Asian markets for the hard-to-source Asian ingredients.

Eventually, she’d like to add frog legs to the menu and to fuse Scandinavian and Filipino culinary traditions, as a way to reflect her own quirky life path.

LABOR OF LOVE

Ranta’s hopes for The Quarry extend beyond the culinary. For the past decade, the children of Monsonites have had to leave town to find work. Ranta hopes the cultural developments in Monson, including her restaurant, may entice them back and provide work. In just the short time the restaurant has been open, she’s hired a number of local young people and taught them far more than how to “sling hash in a regular restaurant,” Monson resident Melinda Wentworth said. Wentworth, an assistant librarian at Dover-Foxcroft Academy, briefly ran a diner in the area nearly four decades ago.

Among the young people who work at The Quarry are the Rantas’ own children. Their daughter Esa helps with plating, while their son Gunnar is training to be a sous chef. Her husband lends a hand, too, acting as her right-hand man, dishwasher and expediter (the person at a restaurant who “expedites” service between the kitchen and dining room).

Ranta herself works very long days – 18 hours a day every day, sometimes more, but she says cooking at The Quarry doesn’t feel like work. At the end of each day, she looks forward to the next one – the chance to return to the kitchen and create new dishes.

Artist Shawn Thornton reaches for a piece of tuna sashimi during lunch at The Quarry. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Standing at just 4 feet 11 inches, she cleans the oven’s 12-foot oven hood herself, climbing on top of the oven, disassembling it and washing every single panel. Like the restaurant itself, the task is a labor of love.

With one season at the helm behind her, Ranta is keeping things low key. No chef pictures on Facebook, no TripAdvisor summaries or Yelp reviews. “I just want to do a good job – and feed the artists.”

Can The Quarry survive in a town where the standard restaurant menu offers up pub food and the typical bill comes to $20? “I’ve heard it’s good food,” said Bryan Malo, who works at Monson’s A.E. Robinson Convenience Store, “but I personally wouldn’t go because of price.”

Can it survive in winter when vacationing diners from places like Chicago, Quebec and Florida are long gone? Some long-timers say yes. Others say no. With all the changes brought by the Libra Foundation, they fear taxes will go up and Monson will lose its quiet character.

Dawn MacPherson-Allen, a retired schoolteacher, born and bred Monsonite and owner of Shaw’s Hiker Hostel, is in the yes camp. A friend of Ranta’s, she’s seen the town go through many changes. Ranta, she said, is “one of the most creative – and determined – women I’ve ever known. If she sets her mind to it, she does it.”

When people ask Ranta herself, ‘Why here?’ ‘Why Monson?’ she has a ready answer: “I love Monson,” she tells them. “It’s my town.”

Marissa Sophia Schneiderman is an independent audio reporter and writer living in Portland. She can be contacted at:

hellomarissa.com