Life is a celebration and, these days, chef Mawa McQueen has loads to be joyous about. The talented chef has just been nominated for a prestigious “Best Chef” award (Mountain region) by the James Beard Foundation. But with three thriving businesses in full swing (Mawa’s Kitchen, Mawa’s Crepe Shack and her very own line of granola, Mawa’s GrainFreeNola), the culinary queen is too busy building her food empire to get lost in the celebration. McQueen is on a mission to make delicious food that not only reflects her West African roots but also brings joy to all who eat her culinary creations.
McQueen’s love affair with food started from the time she was a child, and she has vivid memories of the important role food served in her family growing up on the Ivory Coast, part of the southern coast of West Africa. “I was exposed to many different cultures and backgrounds while living in West Africa,” she recollects. “We rarely would go out to dinner. Instead, we would dine at others’ homes whose cultures ranged from Moroccan, Portuguese, Mediterranean and, of course, African and French.” From this, McQueen says that she was “introduced to a variety of different ingredients and dishes from cultures at a young age.”
McQueen’s early years living on the Ivory Coast were also warmly colored by memories of time spent bonding with family over food—something that she wants to create for her Aspen patrons. “I want to create a sense of community in Aspen,” she says. “There are people from all over the world and [the] country that live here. Some people are lonely, and I want to create an environment that is warm and welcoming for patrons to dine with me and expand the meaning of what family means.”
She’s done just that for the past 12 years, as the restaurateur behind the only Black-owned restaurants in Aspen. “My experience has truly been a blessing,” says McQueen. “My mission here in Aspen is to bring people together over healthy, nutritious food that can’t be found anywhere else. Community means the world to me, so one of my missions here is to bring people together and introduce them to different cultures through food.”
Along the way, new and unexpected endeavors have become a part of McQueen’s vision, including the launch of a granola line. “Believe it or not, I started making the GrainFreeNola because I did not enjoy any of the granola that was being sold at stores,” she says. “I have many customers tell me my GrainFreeNola is the best that they have had. It is hard to find a good granola, especially one that is paleo, vegan and gluten-free.” McQueen uses distinctive ingredients like tamarind, cocoa nibs and hibiscus flour used to create her Out of Africa GrainFreeNola (one of five flavors currently available in her granola line). She shares plans for further expansion of the brand: “I am looking to incorporate the grain Fonio into my GrainFreeNola products, along with incorporating CBD oil into the GrainFreeNola as well.”
There’s no endgame in sight to what McQueen will create and accomplish on the food front, but when it’s all said and done, it’s the connection that food brings to her family—both her biological one and the ever-expanding one she’s actively creating—that matters most. “What I would like to be remembered for most is bringing joy, kindness and sincerity to people’s lives, because I genuinely care about others,” she says. “I want to show people that if you work hard for your dreams, you have a strong chance of being able to obtain them and more.”