Foodstuff: Mawa McQueen’s appetite for abundance
After a James Beard nomination, one Aspen chef is ready to dig deeper into her roots
Mawa McQueen is hungry for more.
She wants to add “more experience, more culture” to what is already a cultural experience at Mawa’s Kitchen in the Aspen Airport Business Center; wants to make it “even more of a destination,” wants to “do more Mediterranean, more African food” — to “unapologetically go dig deep in my roots” on the Ivory Coast in Africa and in France, she said.
A 2022 James Beard Award nomination for “Best Chef” in the Mountain region certainly helped jump-start that appetite, she said. The semifinalist nod in February came with a flood of community kudos McQueen said she has never felt before and validated the tough years and the financial struggles and the hurdles of building a culinary reputation past the roundabout.
“I’ve been here, working so hard, there’s no glory, and then sometimes, you know, you just stay there — even though we never do because we change our menu at least four times a year — I feel like I’m stagnant. I’m not moving,” McQueen said.
“It gave me fuel to create, to use more, even more different ingredients, even more farming, more — everything more,” she added. (Not that she wasn’t already in an abundance mindset: McQueen also has a catering division, a granola line and Mawa’s Crepe Shack in Snowmass Village.)
Which goes back to that idea of more African and Mediterranean flavors, which McQueen is eager to weave into a menu already rich in her heritage.
I observed in our interview that it’s not a niche that’s been filled here in Aspen. You could throw a rock with a blindfold on from just about anywhere in the downtown core and probably hit an Italian joint or a steakhouse, but try finding fonio on a lunch menu on restaurant row and you’ll be hard-pressed to track down the West African ancient grain.
(At Mawa’s Kitchen, McQueen adds it to pancake batter and arugula salad and offers truffled fonio chips, too; her granola line, Mawa’s GrainFreeNola, says “Seeded Soul Foniola” and some fonio bars are coming soon.)
McQueen has noticed that, too. There are diners, she said, who ask why there isn’t a pasta dish on the menu — some, even, who were up in arms when she removed macaroni and cheese from the offerings.
“They don’t extend their palate,” McQueen said. “They come here, they want what they want. You know, if it’s not sushi or Italian, nothing else matters. But I’m confident enough that people who follow me want something different.”
Her confidence in her faithful followers comes from her efforts to teach people to want something different; she has menu inserts explaining fonio and wants to guide people toward more adventurous offerings. (Mawa’s Kitchen also doesn’t make substitutions; the way it’s offered is the way it’s served, per the footnote on the menu: “To maintain the integrity of the menu and the sanity of our staff, customizing will be politely declined.”)
“It’s all about education. It’s all about training. Okay? Once you know better, you do better. … I trained my customer to look forward to those things, and they want to,” McQueen said. “So most of them are still happy — and then for the people who are not happy, I don’t need your business.”
To that end: Diners who aren’t willing to embrace that variety need not drive past the roundabout, McQueen said.
“That’s for people who want culture, people who love other people and people who value difference and culture, OK?” McQueen said. “Flavor – that’s life, to me. … I’m just trying to cook from my soul.”
Kaya Williams is a reporter for the Aspen Times and The Snowmass Sun who knows conversation with Mawa McQueen is a guaranteed boost of serotonin. Email her at email@example.com.
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