The Quarry’s chef Marilou Ranta and husband William Ranta stand at the end of a long table after lunch in this file photo from 2018. The restaurant won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Hospitality on Monday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Quarry restaurant in tiny Monson won a James Beard Foundation Award Monday night for Outstanding Hospitality. The restaurant beat out four other restaurants, as far flung as Washington state, Alabama and Chicago.

As she reached the podium at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago where the awards were held, Quarry chef and owner Marilou Ranta briefly looked around in disbelief. “Oh my God. I’m so nervous.”

“Now everybody will know where my town is. We have 670 residents. Now we have 671,” she said. She touched the James Beard medal – which depicts the “dean of American cookery” for whom the awards are named – that had been hung around her neck on a ribbon, “because I’m taking Mr. Beard with me.”

Dressed in a shimmering purple-black gown that was as far removed from her usual chef whites as Monson is from Chicago, Ranta then thanked her husband, who came to Chicago with her, as did her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. “My crew,” Ranta calls them; they all help her run The Quarry.

Maine had 11 semifinalists this year, including chefs, restaurants and bars, but The Quarry was the only one that moved on to finalist, or in Beard terms, “nominee” status. The restaurant was up against The Black Cypress in Pullman, Washington; Bottega in Birmingham, Alabama; Lula Drake in Columbia, South Carolina; and Sepia in Chicago.

The ever exuberant Ranta, who grew up on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines and worked as a maid for a spell in her home country, opened the Quarry in 2018 in Monson, in Piscataquis County just south of Moosehead Lake. She came to Maine with her husband, who grew up here, and the couple and their children moved to Monson in 1997. When the Libra Foundation was developing artist residency programs in Monson, they asked her if she’d be willing to cook for the visiting artists. She had a question of her own: Could she feed the artists but at the same time run a restaurant, which had long been a dream of hers? The fine-dining Quarry was born.


She opened the restaurant exactly five years ago Monday to the day, which made the award even more “awesome,” Ranta said in a telephone interview about 30 minutes after winning. “This is so exciting. I never ever in my wildest dreams thought that I’d be standing in front of all the best chefs. I can’t even remember what I said.”

Ranta flew to Chicago on Saturday to attend the ceremony and weekend of parties, hoping to see something of the city, which she’d never visited before. That’s not exactly what happened, however. American Airlines, lost her luggage. It didn’t find its way to her until 1 a.m. Monday morning. “We were wearing the same clothes for two days,” she said, laughing. It wasn’t lost on her that American Airlines was the sponsor of the Outstanding Hospitality Award.

Even being a finalist already had changed things for the very-off-the-beaten-track restaurant. (“I don’t want to say the middle of nowhere in Maine,” an announcer at the awards ceremony said, “but the middle of very bucolic Maine.”) Ranta said that people from all over the country have been calling to make reservations. Asked if she thought winning would change her life, she replied she hoped not.

The Outstanding Hospitality category recognizes an establishment that “fosters a sense of hospitality among its customers and staff that serves as a beacon for the community and demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, hospitality and operations while contributing positively to its broader community.” The restaurant must be at least three years old.

Also honored Monday, though the award was announced in February, was Nezinscot Farm in Turner,  one of six winners this year of an America’s Classics Award, which recognizes “locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.”

Sam Hayward won the first ever James Beard Award for Maine, for Best Chef: Northeast in 2004. Since then, the state has had a number of other nominees and winners, including winners Rob Evans, then at Hugo’s; Melissa Kelly, at Primo; and Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor, at Eventide Oyster Co.


The annual awards, known as the “Oscars of the food world” and nearly as glitzy, are always held on Monday nights because it’s the usual industry night off.

The awards were launched in 1990 but have undergone major changes in the last three years, including adding both a code of ethics and a foundation statement of “our values.” For decades, the winners were picked as the best in each category. But in the last few years, the foundation also has rated chefs and restaurants on their “demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive,” according to a statement on the foundation’s website. Or as Beard Foundation President Clare Reichenbach said at the start of the ceremony Monday, the awards “recognize excellence both on and beyond the plate.”

This change has not been trouble-free. An article in the New York Times in late May detailed investigations into nominees who were accused (anonymously) of bad behavior like bullying and harassment and found that the investigations themselves were problematic.

This year’s winners were notable in their diversity, with many Black, Asian and Hispanic chefs taking home the highest honors in the American restaurant industry.

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