Breakfast Champion: Chef Mawa McQueen brings new flavors to brunch — and beyond
When chef Mawa McQueen pushes a plate of pancakes toward me, I must admit: they look pretty standard. Dappled golden-brown with lacy edges and each measuring the height of three tines of a fork when cut (a generous quarter-inch), the pancakes have a moist, cloud-like texture. I take a bite and ponder the subtly sweet flavor. Something is … different.
“You don’t even need this,” McQueen says, reaching across the table to pour pure maple syrup down one edge of the stack. I slice off that portion, and chew thoughtfully. I’m stumped.
“Fonio,” she declares, procuring a postcard printed with facts about the West African ancient grain, pictured as a pale imitator of couscous but naturally gluten-free. “I’ve found that fonio is gentler on my stomach than quinoa. It’s not as heavy.”
As of this weekend, fonio will replace millet — in gluten-free porridge and a “harvest bowl” — and quinoa in pancakes, all served for daily breakfast and weekend brunch at Mawa’s Kitchen. Adjacent to the production kitchen for her busy catering company, located 3 miles outside of Aspen proper down Highway 82 in the Aspen Business Center (ABC), the dining room is a rare destination that strikes a balance between high-end hotel fare and more reasonably priced coffee shop or fast-casual meals.
While Mawa’s Kitchen menu is loaded with healthful produce and caters to an array of dietary preferences — McQueen’s MO since breaking into private cheffing 13 years ago and essentially creating the area’s first private in-flight catering service — it doesn’t fall short on splurge ingredients. See: organic free-range eggs, luscious Tender Belly bacon, and herbes de Provence folded into her signature buttermilk biscuits.
Those biscuits, by the way, are also offered as a gluten-free option. (Along with toast, banana bread, cornbread, lemon or nut bars, brownies and granola.) For the past two years, McQueen hosted a booth showcasing gluten-free goodies at the Aspen Saturday Market.
Now, instead, she’s refocused on breakfast, brunch and lunch at Mawa’s Kitchen, as well as at Market Street Kitchen in Willits Town Center, which opened in May 2016. During the Snowmass Base Village grand opening this past December, McQueen launched The Crêpe Shack by Mawa’s Kitchen, instantly popular for its wide variety of filling options (including luxe caviar and red-wine-braised short ribs). Diversity is the chef’s longstanding hallmark.
“Most of the menu is geared to dietary restriction — vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free — because this is our society today,” McQueen explains. “I am not gluten-free, but (it) is my preference. The menu reflects that.”
Fresh produce reigns supreme, too. The Plant B Breakfast is an array of sautéed greens, mushrooms, grilled tomato, fingerling potato, refried beans and scrambled tofu (sub free-range organic eggs); purple yam chipotle hash includes spinach, bell pepper, onions, and black beans. That harvest bowl is vegan by design, with roasted cauliflower and house-made cashew “ricotta.” The Farmer’s Wife equals seasonal vegetables topped with two eggs any style.
“And a bonus biscuit!” McQueen exclaims, for good measure. “Yayyyyyy!”
Unique ingredients abound: yuzu citrus in lemonade; chia seeds swirling in watermelon agua fresca; bee pollen on almond-strawberry-banana toast; lentil-cashew hummus in a lunch wrap. Niçoise salad is topped with Norwegian salmon; French-baguette bánh mì is stuffed with rare ahi tuna; a Maine lobster roll is nestled next to freshly fried potato chips tossed with Old Bay Seasoning. Two years ago, McQueen began packaging GrainFreeNola for sale, offered in five flavors without refined sugar or GMO ingredients.
This seemingly broad range of cultural influence makes sense when you realize that McQueen was born the eldest of 11 children on the Ivory Coast, grew up in Paris, and spent her first expatriate year in hospitality at a luxe hotel in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Today her well-established catering company and satellite operations in Basalt and Snowmass make daytime creativity at Mawa’s Kitchen possible. All told, the empire — which McQueen runs with husband, Daniel — employs more than 30 people.
“I take more risks now,” McQueen says. “I can really play. I’m doing breakfast and lunch to be creative. I’m not charging 18 bucks (for eggs). Our rent is cheaper; we have parking (at the ABC). I don’t have that stress. I have my catering. I make money with my private chef and at the airport. I’m like everybody else in Aspen: I have two jobs.”
Two is a conservative estimate, of course, because McQueen — known around town for her big, loud laugh and, some might, say diva ’tude — is always scheming. She’s brainstorming a street-food concept to launch in her home city of Abidjan in 2021. Recently she purchased a mobile crêpe cart from France, which is stationed outdoors at Aspen Ideas Festival all this week.
David Blumentritt, who worked alongside then-restaurant manager McQueen at Montagne at The Little Nell back in 2008 and reunited with her on the Mawa’s Kitchen team in May, drove to Denver twice last week to pick it up.
“She doesn’t focus on one area in the food and beverage business,” he marvels. “If we do dinner, it’s a special event or a client’s house, a private-chef service. We’re always inventing; the menu changes almost every two weeks. From the customer — and staff — perspective, it’s great. We keep learning and growing … it keeps everybody sharp and on our toes.”
Next up: Mawa’s Kitchen annual summertime special events, including a Lobster Bake on July 27 (McQueen’s birthday) and “Taste of West Africa” on Aug. 24. No doubt, there will be fonio.
“I’m introducing things that are a part of me,” McQueen quips. “I did the French thing, the American thing. African food is a blank canvas. …”
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April has been decreed, for the first time, as “Sonoma County Wine Month” by the vintners and it is a righteous idea, one that should have legs long into the future.