CHEF AND ENTREPRENEUR MAWA MCQUEEN EXPANDED HER REALM IN THE ROARING FORK VALLEY ON A LEGACY OF GRIT AND DETERMINATION.
PHOTO BY KELSEY BRUNNER/COURTESY OF MCQUEEN HOSPITALITY
JAIMIE FOXX WAS BORN ERIC MARLON BISHOP. Audrey Hepburn was once Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston. Likewise, the chef and owner of Aspen’s Mawa’s Kitchen (mawaskitchen.com), The Crêpe Shack and Mawita changed her name when she moved to the U.S. in 2002. “I’m a queen, not a princess,” says Mawa McQueen, whose given surname is Sidide. “I wanted a powerful, elevated name that I needed to live up to.”
Last spring, McQueen signed a lease to open an outpost of The Crêpe Shack in downtown Aspen, the realization of a decades-long dream. Her other eateries—the only Black-owned restaurants in the Roaring Fork Valley—are located at the Aspen Business Center and in Snowmass Village. “I spent a lot of years marketing, but it was a struggle to get people to the ABC, and I didn’t have the money to sustain a business in town,” McQueen says. “But when I signed that lease, I cried. Finally, I can call myself an Aspenite.”
Mawa McQueen always wanted to have a little French cafe in Aspen proper. “Dreams can come true after 20 years,” she says. PHOTO BY LUCAS DE CESCO/COURTESY OF MCQUEEN HOSPITALITY
Through sheer determination, McQueen has achieved success as a chef. “I don’t sleep,” she says. Last year she was named a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef, Mountain region. But that recognition was long in coming. And the story of her rise is one of constant struggle and resilience in the face of racism.
McQueen was born in West Africa’s Côte d’Ivoire. When she was 12, the family, including 19 siblings, immigrated to Paris. “We lived in a ghetto, and we had no money for restaurants,” she says. The family would eat meals with neighbors who came from Africa, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, an experience that would inform her unique brand of globally inspired cuisine. “You can’t tell me to choose one type of cuisine,” she says. “It’s kind of a melting pot.”
McQueen went to a culinary school in Paris on a scholarship, where she trained as a chef but also learned proper etiquette for serving at the front of the house. “It was a prestigious school, and I wanted to cook, but nobody wanted to hire me. I was Black, and I was a female. I had two strikes against me,” she says. After earning her degree, the only job on offer was for a dishwasher, so she moved to London, where she worked as an au pair. “I didn’t care. I needed the work,” she says.
When she applied for a housekeeper job at a Relais & Château property in Stratford on Avon, the manager, impressed with her background, urged her to apply for a server position instead, knowing that skill set was part of her culinary school training. “Front-of-the-house jobs paid well, and I could work on my English,” says McQueen, who spoke only French at the time.
Mawita opened in Snowmass in 2022, serving Latin-inspired fare. PHOTO BY KELSEY BRUNNER/COURTESY OF MCQUEEN HOSPITALITY
That job opened an opportunity to work at White Barn Inn, another Relais & Châteaux property in Kennebunkport, Maine. With a coveted green card in hand, she moved to the U.S. at 28. “I wanted to move to America so badly. I didn’t care where. I just wanted to achieve my dreams,” she says. “When I woke up in Maine, I was like, ‘Where are all the Black people?’”
The Maine job was seasonal, so to keep McQueen in the Relais & Châteaux fold, her new boss asked where she’d like to work in winter. Aspen, she said. As a teenager, McQueen was inspired by a romantic scene in The Young and the Restless set in Aspen—complete with private jets. She landed her next job at The Little Nell’s Montagna, where she worked for a decade, initially spending summers in Maine and eventually staying in Aspen full-time. At Montagna, McQueen rose from server to supervisor to manager, moonlighting as a private chef. She launched her own catering business in 2006, paving the way for an empire of restaurants.
In 2012, McQueen and her husband, Daniel, who she met in Maine, opened Mawa’s Kitchen at the Airport Business Center, serving a healthy blend of French and Mediterranean cuisine. More recently, she’s embraced her roots and added African influences. “We use fonio [an ancient grain], lots of okra and hibiscus,” she says. What her cuisine is not? Soul food. “That’s not part of my culture.”
Inspired by trips to Oaxaca, McQueen serves three different guacamoles at Mawita. PHOTO BY KELSEY BRUNNER/COURTESY OF MCQUEEN HOSPITALITY
The Crêpe Shack has been a favorite in Snowmass Village since 2018, serving savory and sweet iterations. In 2022, she opened Mawita, Latin-inspired fare using locally sourced organic ingredients, served on the top floor of The Collective, also in Snowmass Village. The winter menu focuses on Latin American cuisine—including Oaxacan fare inspired by McQueen’s trips to Mexico—and the summertime menu leans toward Peruvian cuisine and Spanish tapas.
Between the James Beard nomination, opening a new space in downtown Aspen and a cookbook called Mawa’s Way, McQueen feels her hard work has finally paid off. “I’ve never had any investors. I’m self-made,” she says. “Since day one, it’s been a battle. But I refuse to be defined by my circumstances.” For McQueen, it’s about more than success. “Feeding people is not a business,” she says. “I cook from my heart.”