After more than a half-century in the kitchen at Mona’s Italian Restaurant in Toluca,
Ray McAllister offers his secret recipe.
Not for cooking, but for living. Long living.
In his 86th year, McAllister – well known around town as Ray Mac – still works four days a week making pasta at Mona’s. He enjoys his job, in part out of gratitude.
He says decades of hustling around the kitchen have kept his body and mind spry. His fountain of youth is a boiling pot of spaghetti.
“It keeps me going,” he gushed after finishing a Friday shift. “It really does.”
He also has kept Mona’s going, not just with 54 years of hard work but also in keeping the kitchen upbeat and mentoring teen workers. Plus, even outside work, he is a good-natured ambassador for his employer.
In Toluca, everybody loves Ray Mac.
“He has been the core of quality (and) consistency, and helped us built this grand reputation,” said Mona’s owner Tony Bernardi.
And Mona’s fortunes long have been important to Toluca, where for generations much of the economy has been driven by pasta.
Toluca boomed in the early 1900s as a mining town. But the last coal mine dried up in 1924, and the population nosedived from 6,000 to less 1,400.
But it didn’t become a ghost town, in large part thanks to a pair of restaurants.
Mona’s opened in 1933, and Capponi’s followed a few doors down the next year. For more than 50 years, they’ve been owned by the Bernardi family, which also birthed a pasta factory. All told, in a town still holding tight at 1,400 residents, those businesses boast hundreds of workers.
The eateries are beloved, locally as well as throughout central Illinois. Any evening at either place, you might find a couple celebrating their 40th, 50th or 60th anniversary – at the same table where they had their first date.
One employee has witnessed most of that history first-hand: Ray McAllister.
A Streator native, he met and married a Toluca girl. So, Ray and Juanita McAllister moved to her hometown, where they raised six kids.
In 1968, he was asked to try his hand in the kitchen at Mona’s, which was short on cooks. With no restaurant experience, McAllister said he’d take the job on a trial basis. Fifty-plus years later there, he is still going strong.
Four mornings a week, the widower gets up at 4 a.m., feeds and walks his dog, then rides his bicycle three blocks to Mona’s. At 5 a.m., he starts cooking almost 100 pounds of pasta per shift: 50 pounds of tortellini, 20 pounds of spaghetti, 15 pounds of mostaccioli and 10 pounds of fettuccini.
Over the years, thatsa lotsa pasta: “I figure between 120 tons and 150 tons of pasta since I’ve been here.”
Plus, he makes lasagna with his own flair.
“I put brick cheese in mine,” he said with a smile. “It makes it better. It makes it the best.”
Years back, when still working full-time at night, McAllister interacted with a countless number of local teens working at Mona’s. He not only taught them how to make pasta, but also shared life lessons, such as the need to treat others with respect.
“I got along with all them kids,” he said. “They were great. I still see a lot of them. They come see me.”
Many of those “kids” are now parents and grandparents in Toluca. Mona’s owner Bernardi said McAllister led by example in teaching them teamwork, consistency and other valuable skills.
“I would say number 1 would be responsibility,” Bernardi said. “That brings a lot to the table as far as the job goes.”
Meantime, McAllister always has emphasized having fun at work, often through pranks. One of his best: telling a newbie to run down the street to Capponi’s to borrow a “sausage stretcher” – you know, because the sausages weren’t long enough. At Capponi’s, the cook – long accustomed to the joke – would hand the teen some sort of doohickey, which when brought back to Mona’s would spark belly laughs throughout the kitchen.
“Just having fun,” McAllister said with a grin.
He never takes himself too seriously. He laughs when asked if he has any cooking secrets to share.
“Make sure the water’s boiling,” he said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist.”
But McAllister does have one special secret to his long and active life. For that, he gives thanks to Mona’s, where hauling pasta around the kitchen takes a lot of huffing and puffing. For McAllister, the kitchen has doubled as sort of workout room that he credits with keeping him healthy and nimble.
The kitchen workouts were even harder back in the day when the cooler was downstairs. A step here, a step there, and a heart gets strong.
“These … steps kept me alive,” he said.
McAllister says he has no intentions of slowing down. He plans to keep up his schedule, 5 a.m., three hours a workday, four days a week, making pasta at Mona’s.
“As long as I can keep going,” he said, “I’ll keep going.”