Mawa McQueen semifinalist for James Beard ‘Best Chef’ award in Mountain region |

Mawa McQueen semifinalist for James Beard ‘Best Chef’ award in Mountain region

Awards are “like getting an Oscar” in food and dining industry, McQueen said

Mawa McQueen outside of Mawa’s Kitchen in Aspen, Friday, July 10, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen’s Mawa McQueen has been named a semifinalist for this year’s James Beard Awards “Best Chef” honor in the Mountain region, according to a James Beard Foundation announcement released Wednesday.

The awards are “like getting an Oscar” for those who work in food and dining, said McQueen, who is the chef behind Mawa’s Kitchen at the Aspen Airport Business Center and Mawa’s Crepe Shack in Snowmass Base Village as well as the Mawa’s GrainFreeNola granola line.

“I cried my eyes out, I couldn’t even see clearly,” McQueen said Thursday of her response to the news. She said it’s an honor just to be named a semifinalist — but she’d still like to win, too.

“Just being nominated is enough, but now I’m going to go after the Oscar,” she said.

McQueen views the accomplishment as recognition for her years of hard work in an industry in which the top ranks are so often dominated by white men, she said. It’s an achievement that she had not even imagined as a goal she could set for herself until she learned the news earlier this week.

“To me it was too far out there, (I) never dreamed of it and the fact that it came, it means the whole world to me,” McQueen said. “I am so grateful.”

Mawa McQueen prepares food for her evening virtual cooking class at Mawa’s Kitchen in Aspen on Friday, May 8, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The semifinalist nod also feels validating, she said. To McQueen, it’s proof that her commitment to fresh, vibrant food to growing her enterprise were all “worth it” despite past financial struggles and the challenges of building a reputation at a restaurant outside of Aspen’s downtown core, she said.

“That was so great to see that I matter, and other people think I matter. … People notice, your hard work is not in vain,” McQueen said.

The accomplishment feels like a momentous one for McQueen: “I can die now — I feel like I did something,” she joked. But in her eyes, it’s really a beginning, not an end-all-be-all.

“Now that that door’s open, I know that there’s that possibility, I’m going to work harder, I’m going to do way more,” McQueen said.

Mawa is among the 20 chefs listed as semifinalists in the Mountain region, which covers Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.

The finalists for the James Beard Foundation’s Restaurant and Chef Awards will be announced on March 16 in Scottsdale, Arizona, along with the honorees for Leadership, the Lifetime Achievement Award and Humanitarian of the Year. Winners will be celebrated at a ceremony on June 13 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The Restaurant and Chef awards were established in 1991 and are one of five separate recognition programs for the James Beard Awards.

The program conducts an open call for recommendations for the Restaurant and Chef Awards and the Leadership Awards — public submissions are reviewed and considered by a subcommittee — in addition to recommendations from the program’s voting body.

For a full list of semifinalists, visit