Chef Mawa McQueen, owner of Mawa’s Kitchen and a growing culinary empire, has a great big warm smile. Within minutes, she’s wrapped her arms around you (even virtually through a computer screen). Yet this woman, a force behind Aspen’s only Black-owned restaurant, didn’t walk a gilded path to reach these heights.
Born in the Ivory Coast, McQueen grew up in low-income housing in Paris with her mother and 19 siblings. Life wasn’t easy, and they didn’t have much. McQueen started cooking. “I wouldn’t say I loved it. It was something you did,” she explains. “My mom didn’t teach me. You figure it out in the ghetto. You’re in survival mode. My mom and dad were working two jobs and I was taking care of and feeding the kids.”
The building where they lived inspired her. “In French low-income housing you have Moroccan, Tunisian, Arabic—all these cultures, and our currency was food,” she adds. “We didn’t have money, but we’d go around. This one is making tea, this one is making couscous, or honey cake. I didn’t know it was a gift, that I was going to be creating all these things, and it was a real learning experience. I learned from all these women.”
Photo: Alexis Ahrling
McQueen quickly realized she was very good at cooking. She dropped out of school and attended a vocational school where an administrator saw her potential. She earned a scholarship to culinary school and while she succeeded in the kitchen, she was convinced to work front-of-house. “I didn’t want to work front-of-house, but I realized later that my teacher was warning me because nobody would hire a Black woman to work in the kitchen in France. I had to stage in a chain restaurant.”
Still, she kept her chin up and her head down, working to find her way while knowing all along that her goal was to get to America. Her zeal to come to the United States came from watching the soap opera The Young and the Restless as a kid and seeing a scene where a couple takes a trip to Aspen. “I saw that scene and said, I’m going there,” she laughs.
Photo: Daryl Murphy
She did eventually get to Aspen, but it was far from a straight and easy path. She first went to England, working there for a time before winning a visa lottery while applying for jobs in the States. One called back—in Maine. “I didn’t know where Maine was but I didn’t care,” she laughs. Once the summer ended, her boss asked her where she wanted to go for the winter. Her response? “Aspen, of course!”
She spent five years shuttling between summers in Maine and winters in Aspen, but soon enough she realized she wanted to stay in Colorado. While working at The Little Nell, she began cooking privately for wealthy clients. Her catering business grew—in homes and for private air charters—and she eventually opened Mawa’s Kitchen in the Aspen Airport Business Center in 2006, five minutes from town.
Photo: Courtesy of Aspen
While running her restaurant, McQueen did anything she could—from catering to office cleaning to babysitting—to make ends meet. It was a lot of work and a lot of disappointment for many years. Things were starting to pick up, and then Covid came. She and her husband, who left his hospitality career to join her, decided they were going to finally call it quits. “We were in so much debt—just to cook.” It was too much.
“We decided we were going to exit slowly,” she says. “Nobody’s giving me money, so I might as well go out in style and cook from my heart. I cook French, Moroccan, African—all the things that I am.” Business started picking up, but she was still planning to close the restaurant. (Her husband had even bought a course to become a real estate agent.)
Photo: Alexis Ahrling
“But then things started happening slowly. The restaurant was busy.” And then the phone call came: McQueen was nominated for a James Beard Award. “I thought I was going to die. I thought it was a mistake,” she says. She went online to confirm it and said, “Oh, we can’t give up now,” she laughs endearingly.
It turns out giving up isn’t in her DNA. She doubled down, opening Crepe Shack in Snowmass Village. The fast-casual concept’s popularity has inspired her to start a small chain, and her desire to bring more culture to Aspen has her adding landlord to her resume. Later this year, she plans to purchase the building where Mawa’s Kitchen is located so she can offer the space to other small, independent restaurants.
In a town defined by its picturesque peaks, it’s easy to liken Mawa McQueen to a mountaineer climbing to the summit. Hers is a story of resilience and a whole lot of hard work. “I’ve had so much failure, but I’m going to keep going.”
Photo: Carolina Joyce
Hero image: Daryl Murphy
Thumbnail image: Carolina Joyce