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Chef Mawa McQueen is proud of the fact that she’s made her home—and her career—in Aspen. But if you think that working in the elevated resort setting for more than 20 years, opening three restaurants, earning a semifinalist nomination for the 2022 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mountain, and writing a cookbook might slow her down…think again. This force of nature has plenty of plans for the future. Here, three of McQueen’s newest ventures.
Mawita in Snowmass Village
Mawita, McQueen’s newest restaurant, opened in December 2022 promising “Latin-inspired cuisine”—but don’t ask her if it’s a Mexican restaurant.
“Mawita actually came [about] because now more than ever, I’m trying to embrace my roots and that’s African,” McQueen explains. “And so far, everything I’ve done doesn’t have anything to do, truly, with who I was. So I decided to do something that was me.”
McQueen opened Mawa’s Kitchen in 2012 in the Aspen Business Center after running a successful catering company for six years; prior, she worked front-of-house at White Barn Inn in Maine and the Little Nell in Aspen. It was at Mawa’s Kitchen that she says she realized that there are a lot of similarities between African culture—McQueen was born in Côte d’Ivoire and moved to Paris when she was young—and Mexican culture.
“It’s the same ingredient, prepared differently… Take yucca. We pound the yucca, fry the yucca. They don’t pound the yucca. They fry it; they boil it,” McQueen says. “Plantain—they think they created plantain. Honey, it was us. This is the funniest thing.”
While there are many ingredients shared between the two cultures, it’s the preparation and seasoning that differ. “People come to my restaurant and say, ‘Oh, you guys started a Mexican place.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, no, this is African,’” McQueen says. “How come nobody noticed that we had so much in common?”
The result is a menu that delivers exactly what McQueen promises: Latin cuisine with an African flair. There are three different guacamoles, three different salsas, two moles, and a variety of tapas and other dishes; chapulines a la Mexicana (patacones topped with crispy grasshoppers), jerk chicken tacos, and mole rojo are standouts. More quintessentially McQueen twists include the fondue de queso, an elevated version of the traditional cheese dip; the truffled yucca; or the bougie tostada, topped with 30 grams of royal Osetra caviar, scrambled egg, and patacones.
The decor also reflects the marriage of Latin American and African cultures with bold colors and design, including a hanging garden, a dual-sided fireplace, and wallpaper that McQueen designed herself. Mawita serves brunch, lunch, après, and dinner, so there are plenty of opportunities to sample every option.
The Cookbook Mawa’s Way
In the midst of opening a new restaurant, McQueen also released a cookbook, Mawa’s Way, last December, and though it’s her first, it will not be her last.
Based on her early catering days in Aspen and her menu at Mawa’s Kitchen, the book is full of clean, simple, good food. But it’s also highly personal, a glimpse into Mawa’s journey from her childhood in Côte d’Ivoire to moving to Paris (and taking care of her 19 siblings) to her journey to the United States, first in Vermont where she met her husband and business partner, Daniel, to Aspen.
The recipes are accessible, eschewing the niche tools, ingredients, and techniques that some tomes embrace. “I don’t like foo-foo [fancy] food. I want real food with flavor. So that’s what I did,” McQueen explains.
With more than 100 recipes, including fan favorites from Mawa’s Kitchen like chicken yassa and her highly requested gluten-free carrot cake, the cookbook is packed with culinary knowledge. It’s available for purchase online or at McQueen’s restaurants for $28.
A Dinner Series in Aspen and Snowmass
Yes, the James Beard nod is a highlight on any chef’s resume, but perhaps the best prize is the opportunity to network with other chefs. After attending the James Beard Foundation’s Chef Action Summit in Houston this past January, McQueen returned to Colorado with a fire in her eye; she’s excited to collaborate, to bring different flavors and diversity to the rarefied air in Snowmass.
On February 23 and 24, she’s hosting a pop-up dinner with guest chef Ope Amosu from Houston—the first in a series of guest chef events that she’s planning for this year. Amosu, who owns ChòpnBlọk in Houston and appeared on an episode of Top Chef: Houston, will celebrate Black History Month with a four-course menu of Nigerian-inspired cuisine. Tickets for this event are currently on sale online for $98 per person (the Thursday event is at Mawa’s Kitchen, and Friday’s is at Mawita); tax, beverages and gratuity are an additional charge. A portion of the proceeds from chef Ope’s dinner are going to the mental health advocacy nonprofit Aspen Strong.
McQueen said that she struggled during COVID; at one point, she considered giving up the restaurant business. Then she received the James Beard nomination and the opportunity to open a new concept in Snowmass was presented and she realized that she couldn’t quit now.
“I guess someone is telling me that I’m doing something OK,” she says with a laugh.
Mawita is located at 49 Wood Road in Snowmass Village; 12–9 p.m. daily
Mawa’s Kitchen is located at 305 Aspen Airport Business Center in Aspen; 8–10:30 a.m. Mon–Fri, breakfast; 11 a.m.–3 p.m Mon–Fri, lunch; 5–9:30 p.m. Mon-Sat, dinner; 8–3 p.m. Sat–Sun, brunch