Chef Mawa McQueen spent her life in survival mode. Now it’s paying off. — Andscape
When Mawa McQueen found out in 2022 that she’d received a James Beard nomination for best chef, she thought the foundation had made a mistake. A culinary award had never entered her consciousness. Her entire life — from her childhood in Ivory Coast to her upbringing in a poor Parisian neighborhood to years waiting tables in ski resort towns such as Valloire in the Alps and Aspen, Colorado, where she now presides over her award-winning restaurant — McQueen had been too busy trying to survive to care about awards.
Since arriving in the world-renowned ski resort town two decades ago, McQueen, 49, had cleaned toilets, taken care of children, and catered, jobs she continued to do even after opening her restaurant, Mawa’s Kitchen, in 2012, just to keep it open. Before being nominated for best chef in the Mountain Region (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming), McQueen had considered shuttering her failing restaurant located on the outskirts of Aspen’s glitzy downtown near the airport.
The nomination changed everything.
“It was like a snowball,” McQueen said of how popular Aspen’s only Black-owned restaurant became after it hit the public consciousness. It still feels like vindication after being told “No, Mawa” all her life, two years after getting the nod from the culinary tastemakers.
‘I was literally trapped there.’
When McQueen was 12, her family moved from Abidjan in Ivory Coast to the outskirts of Paris. With both parents needing to work — her mother was a hotel housekeeper, her stepfather worked in computers — McQueen said she cared for her siblings and did all the cooking, including all the food shopping (a 30-minute walk each way twice a week). “That’s my culture. I didn’t know any other way. Before that, I was living in Africa. So it wasn’t something I felt sorry about or like I was missing anything. That was my duty, and I f—ing did it. Proudly,” said McQueen of her childhood in Trappes, a Parisian suburb. “I was literally trapped there,” McQueen said, laughing at the coincidence. With two bedrooms for 12 people, the kids slept two to a bed, living “in survival mode,” she said. “You don’t know any better.”
McQueen dropped out of high school at 16 and enrolled in a vocational school where the curriculum was limited for a young Black woman: cooking, housekeeping and child care. However, her kitchen aptitude caught the headmaster’s attention, and he recommended culinary school. “I’m not gonna lie and say, ‘Oh my God, I woke up in the morning and was [suddenly] so passionate about cooking for my brothers and sisters.’ I just did it because he told me to. Nothing exciting about it,” she said of applying to cooking school. For the next two summers, McQueen worked as a hotel housekeeper in Paris with her mother to earn tuition and money for a uniform and knives.
‘Oh, that’s called racism’
McQueen attended Lycée D’hôtellerie Et De Tourisme De Guyancourt, where she now figures prominently on the website. As the only Black woman in the program McQueen’s advisers recommended she steer clear of the chef track. She recalled they told her, “You’re gonna have a hard time,” and “Because you’re pretty, I think you should be in hospitality.” She understood, only later, that they’d been trying to protect her from the rampant racism she would find in French kitchens. It didn’t work.
Despite choosing hospitality, when all her classmates could find internships in top restaurants and hotels, McQueen said, she was rejected. “I felt like either I was crazy or something was going on. Every time I went on an interview, when I showed up, they’re like, ‘no, no,’ And it kind of dawned on me that, ‘Oh, that’s called racism.’ ”
By the time she was 20, McQueen was disillusioned with the culinary world, done with France and the responsibilities required of her in her parents’ home. She devised a three-part plan: 1) get her French citizenship; 2) move to London and learn English; and 3) move to the U.S. “That’s something I always wanted to do. I was obsessed with American culture,” she said. McQueen left her parents’ home and found a child care job in Paris. Two years later, with her citizenship in view, she went off to Valloire to work as a server for the winter season. “They need so many people, [they] don’t look at your color,” McQueen said of the opportunity that helped her earn the money she would need for her departure from France. “When I returned, I got my citizenship, and I said, peace out, motherf—–s. I’m out of here.”
It was 1999, and McQueen found work as an au pair for a family in Stratford-upon-Avon, outside of London. The experience was pivotal. The mother was a television executive with Teletubbies and obsessed with The Oprah Winfrey Show. “This was the first time I saw a white woman be fascinated by a Black woman. I didn’t think that existed,” McQueen said. “In my small brain, I wondered what is this woman saying that’s captivating this powerful woman here. When McQueen finally asked her about the fascination, her boss told her that Winfrey was one of the most powerful women in America. “It was the moment for me. It was everything,” McQueen said.
The Oprah Winfrey Show became McQueen’s teacher. “I went to ‘school’ every single day. I put on Oprah, watched, and realized, ‘I can dream. And it doesn’t matter how. I’m gonna get to America,’ ” she remembered thinking.
She took a job managing a restaurant in London and filled out dozens and dozens of applications for restaurant jobs in the U.S. In 2002, McQueen landed a summer job in Kennebunkport, Maine. At 28, she moved to wait tables at the 150-year-old White Barn Inn, where her regular customers included the George H.W. Bush family — both the former and sitting presidents.
Her summer boss helped McQueen land seasonal work as a server during the winter at The Little Nell, a five-star hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain. For the next four years, McQueen spent her summers in Kennebunkport and her winters in Aspen, a place whose beauty she called “magical.” She’d left her chef dreams behind. “After you’ve tasted $500 a day as wait staff, I didn’t want to be paid $15 an hour,” she said.
‘Food was for me, family’
In the winter of 2006, a diner in Aspen offered McQueen a $35-an-hour gig as a server for her family’s Christmas dinner. The experience turned into another pivotal moment. The client was inept in the kitchen, and McQueen said she took over. By the end of the evening, McQueen had been hired to work as the family’s personal chef during their visits to Aspen. It paid $50 an hour.
The idea sparked something in McQueen. Not only would the concept be an opportunity to “get to be what I wanted to be,” McQueen said, she also learned something else: “I started to understand that food was, for me, family.” Soon, McQueen hung up a shingle as a private chef, secured a kitchen on the outskirts of town near Aspen Airport (now home to her restaurant, Mawa’s Kitchen), gave up her summer job in Maine, and became a full-time Aspen resident. Within a year, McQueen had 12 clients, families with second or third homes in Aspen who visited from all over the world for a few weeks a year.
However, it wasn’t long before McQueen discovered the realities of the ski resort shoulder season between June and December when the mobs of tourists leave and private chef gigs wind down to a trickle. As she returned to survival mode, looking for ways to make additional money, opportunity stuck again. A client asked McQueen to bring her prepared meals to the airport. Rather than eat them at home, they would be dining on their private jet.
It was 2008 and, knowing nothing about what it meant to cater for private jets (“I went and I Googled, ‘private jet catering’ ”), McQueen printed up some flyers, brought samples of her cooking to the private jet hanger, and eventually launched a private jet catering business. It remains a big chunk of her business. During the resort town’s busiest season, she receives 18 to 20 orders daily from her private jet clients.
‘Resilience is my middle name’
In 2012, McQueen discovered she was losing her kitchen space. The landlord wanted to remove all kitchen elements and rent the unit as a traditional office. With a shortage of kitchens for rent in Aspen, McQueen said, she offered two months’ rent upfront and launched a to-go eatery that sold healthy lunch options to airport employees and travelers.
While the restaurant’s offerings were popular, McQueen struggled to earn enough to make the rent. She tried everything for months, then years, to make it work, adding breakfast, dinner, and a bar. “Every single step that I did was a disaster. It was terrible. It almost was like an addiction,” she said of trying to figure out why the restaurant was failing despite her regular customers’ love of her food. “Resilience is my middle name. Especially when you are a Black female, you don’t know any better.”
In 2019, she was done. “I can’t suffer anymore. It’s a never-ending story. There’s no glory. It’s feast or famine in a seasonal place like this,” she told her new husband. She set herself up with an exit strategy, including keeping the kitchen she would sublet.
The following year McQueen experienced yet another pivotal moment. The owner of the print shop next door to her space, the one she’d cleaned for years to help her make the rent — decided to close, fearing it wouldn’t survive the coronavirus pandemic. She thought if she could make the dining area larger, it might be the difference-maker. McQueen convinced the landlord to rent her the additional space at a discount. She said she told him he wouldn’t get any better offers during the pandemic.
James Beard said I mattered’
As the world closed down, people started ordering takeout from Mawa’s Kitchen, and they kept coming. As the pandemic restrictions were loosened and diners ventured out again, they went to Mawa’s Kitchen. A year later, the James Beard nomination appeared out of nowhere. “I’m not in a category of James Beard. It’s never been my calling. It’s never been my thing. I’m just trying to survive here,” she said of the recognition. “I told my husband, ‘Well, I guess I’m doing something great. I’m not going to give up. I’m not gonna let all these people down. I mean, James Beard said I matter.’ ”
The nomination permitted her to be more creative and authentic. “I can be me. Before, I didn’t even venture to that. The plan was to be French or healthy.” She introduced fonio, a subsistence grain native to West Africa, and fufu, a starchy side dish, to her menu. She added oxtail and maffé, a tomato-based sauce with peanuts, dishes from her childhood in the Ivory Coast. Her favorite dish to cook is lamb tagine because it “reminds me of my time in the ghetto,” she explained. “The smells, the tastes, it reminds me of the community I became a part of there and how they helped me and my family.” For dessert, there’s degue (made with millet semolina) and puff puff, a fried doughnut.
There are also dishes that help her educate diners about ingredients shared by West African and Latin American cuisine: Alloco (fried plantain), Bison Pastels (an African empanada), guacamole, salsas, chapulines a la Mexicana (patacones topped with crispy grasshoppers) and jerk chicken tacos. McQueen serves these dishes at her new restaurant, Mawita, in nearby Snowmass Village, where she also owns The Crepe Shack. “The [Aspen Airport Business Center] space that I used to clean is now mine. I bought the whole f—ing building,” she said. McQueen also created an online shop, GrainFreeNola, penned a cookbook, Mawa’s Way Cookbook, and hosts cooking classes.
McQueen is also helping rid Aspen of its downtown-centric mentality, drawing customers 10 minutes out of town to her restaurant and creating opportunities for other ethnic restaurants that can’t afford the high-rent district. She wants them to understand what she finally did – that they matter.