Mawa McQueen expands empire with Mawita in Snowmass and first cookbook, ‘Mawa’s Way’ |

Mawa McQueen expands empire with Mawita in Snowmass and first cookbook, ‘Mawa’s Way’

Mawa McQueen.
Alexis Ahrling/Courtesy photo

Local chef and restaurateur Mawa McQueen was born on the west coast of Africa in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and raised in Paris, where she looked after and fed her 10 younger siblings while her mother worked around the clock to make ends meet.

Like many teenagers, she was enamored with American television, especially Phylicia Rashad’s character, Clair Huxtable, on The Cosby Show.

“Everything I learned was from The Cosby Show,” she said. “I thought all black people in America were like the Huxtables, and it inspired me to not become another statistic like so many around me in my neighborhood.”

But, it was another program that would give her a first glimpse of her future home.

“I was watching an episode of The Young and the Restless in Paris as a teenager, and there were scenes of beautiful, glamorous looking people getting off a private plane in Aspen, and it was so beautiful, a sparkling, magical place,” she said. “I had never seen anything like it before and thought to myself: ‘Wow, I want to go there.'”

The reality of coming to America, let alone Aspen, was still a decade away, but her story is one of manifestation and resilience. She wasn’t the strongest student, so, when high school was ending, and she was asked which vocational school she wanted to attend, she chose culinary school.

“I sucked at school, and the only thing I knew how to do was cook,” she remembered. “There was no love for it at first. It was just a duty. I decided to go into a hotel and restaurant apprenticeship, but, as an African woman with imperfect French, it was hard to break through into the kitchen with all these old-school, snobby French chefs. Everyone in my graduating class got jobs at five-star hotels, and they wanted me to peel potatoes. I said to myself, ‘The only way I am going to be a chef is on my own terms.'”

Mawa’s Burger, Aspen.
Alexis Ahrling/Courtesy photo

After a few disappointing jobs working around France, she left Paris and moved to England, where she worked as an au pair to learn English and where she discovered her new TV hero: Oprah Winfrey.

“The woman I worked for would be glued to the TV watching Oprah every day and would be crying and and emotional, and I thought, ‘Why is this white woman so fascinated with this black woman? I asked her, ‘Why are you watching this woman?’ And, she said she’s one of the most powerful women in America, and I didn’t believe it,” McQueen said. “That’s how my mind was conditioned, but it also made me realize for the first time that a black woman could hold power and be influential in a very large way.”

Once fluent in English, she went back to working front-of-the-house jobs. In 2002, at age 28, she won the much coveted green-card lottery and took a job at the White Barn Inn — a five-star, five-diamond resort hotel and restaurant in Kennebunkport, Maine — where she met her future husband and mastered the hospitality skills and created the connections that would eventually lead her to Aspen.

Mawa McQueen in her kitchen, Aspen.
Alexis Ahrling/Courtesy photo

“As the summer season at The White Barn Inn was winding down, my boss came to me and said, ‘You don’t have to stay in Maine for the winter. Is there somewhere else in the U.S. you’d like to go work?’ And, I said, ‘Yeah, I want to go to Aspen with all the bougie people.’ I never thought he was serious,” she said.

But, sure enough, a week later, her boss returned and told her he’d spoken to a friend of his, the GM of The Little Nell at the time, and she had a job and place to live waiting for her in Aspen — but only on the condition that she came back in four months when the winter season was over. She spent the next four years working in Maine for the summer season, Aspen in the winter … but was still working front-of-house jobs. She hadn’t made it back into the kitchen.

Fonio and Arugula salad, Mawas Kitchen, Aspen.
Alexis Ahrling/Courtesy photo

That changed when a wealthy regular at The Nell approached her and asked if she’d be interested and available to help her to organize and prepare Christmas dinner at her home.

“She offered me a ridiculous amount of money to help her with Christmas dinner,” she said, “and, when I got into the kitchen with her, I realized she didn’t know how to cook. So, I told her, ‘Look, I’ll call a friend to help and cook dinner. Just leave it to me'”

The client was so impressed she offered McQueen a regular gig as her private chef, which she accepted — working at The Nell during the day and as a private chef at night, eventually opening a small catering company in 2006 housed in the same kitchen where Mawa’s stands now in the Aspen Business Center (ABC).

“At first, it was just catering. In 2012, I quit my job at The Nell and created a small restaurant space adjacent to my kitchen. I never wanted to open a restaurant; I only did it to keep my catering staff. I wanted to be an entrepreneur, not a restaurateur,” she said. Then, she opened The Crepe Shack in Snowmass Village in 2018.

Jerk Chicken, Mawa’s Kitchen, Aspen
Alexis Ahrling/Courtesy photo

But, the past decade has had its challenges. At first, it proved difficult to get locals out of town to the ABC to eat and took her many years of catering and building a loyal brunch following to get Mawa’s Kitchen to a place where she felt like things would be OK. And then, COVID hit. At the same time, the space next door became available, and she decided to put everything she had on the line to expand and renovate the new space into the Mawa’s that stands today with the French-inspired wallpaper and dark-green bar. She also launched a high-end granola product line, GrainFreeNola, intended to diversify her business.

“COVID was a tough time for restaurants in general and especially on our business,” she said. “I was catering, cleaning, and babysitting, and my husband was delivering newspapers. We did everything we could to stay afloat.”

After two years, Mawa and her husband were exhausted and ready to call it quits, planning how to wind down the business and considering what their future might look like. And then, in February, just as she’d given up hope, an unexpected announcement changed everything.

She was named a semifinalist for the 2022 James Beard Awards Best Chef honor in the Mountain Region. The so-called “Oscars of the culinary world” was so far removed from her reality she didn’t even realize she was nominated at first.

“The day the James Beard nominations came out, I was out shopping, totally clueless. First, a colleague texted me, and, a few minutes later, a friend of mine called and said, ‘Don’t scream, but you are nominated.’ Of course, I screamed right there in the aisle of the grocery store, and I thought, ‘Well this is it. We can’t close now,'” she said.

African Pastel, Mawa’s Kitchen, Aspen.
Alexis Ahrling/Courtesy photo

Soon after, Forbes magazine profiled her, pointing out that Mawa’s Kitchen is the only black-owned restaurant in Aspen and highlighting her globally-inspired cuisine and optimistic spirit. In a turn of events, Mawa’s has since been visited by high-profile diners, like the famously vegan Democratic senator from New Jersey, Corey Booker, upping her profile as a place to visit while in town.

She also started venturing away from the European-style food she focused on for decades and began introducing her customers to food from Africa and the Middle East, which she is especially passionate about.

“George Floyd happened, and that changed me. I realized I was living up here with all this privilege and decided I wanted to make changes. I had to think about what I was passionate about, and I realized I love African and Middle Eastern food and wanted to go in that direction and found a new love for cooking and food,” she said.

Getting back to her roots and cooking food she is connected to is paying off. Next up, she is releasing her first self-published cookbook “Mawa’s Way” on Dec.12. It will be available at all her restaurants, websites, and on Amazon. She also will expand her restaurant empire with the opening of Mawita in the former Mix6 space in Snowmass Base Village.

“Mawa’s Way.”
Alexis Ahrling/Courtesy photo

Mawita will highlight Latin flavors with an African twist. She explained that she chose Latin-inspired food because she realized that Latin American ingredients are the same as African ingredients.

“Why no one has realized this before is beyond me. We share so many similarities — rice, beans, plantains, corn; we have fufu, they have tortillas — so, it was a no-brainer for me,” she said.

The menu will focus on tapas, tacos, mole (three types: red, black, and green), brunch, and Latin-inspired mezcal-forward cocktails. She’s said she’s excited to share her food inspirations and the flavors she’s discovered from her global travels.

“There is no glory in being a chef,” she said. “It’s hard to get wealthy by being a chef. There is difference between the celebrity chefs on TV and those of us who cook every day. I used to cook for others, and now I cook for myself and am doing what I love. Resilience is necessary. I’ve learned there is always a way — even if you don’t know what you are doing, there is always a way.”

Aspen Times Weekly

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