As a little girl growing up in Africa and Paris, Mawa McQueen always saw the world differently. When she thought about her future, she was never content to settle for the opportunities readily available to her and other immigrants in France, jobs like housekeeping or looking after children. She wanted more. “I was always a rebellious person—you can’t put me here and say, ‘This is it,’” McQueen says. “It’s something I never understood, why I always had the desire to get out of there. I always felt so odd, like why do I have this thing inside of me that says I have to be different and do differently? Why am I not like the shy quiet girl and just do what I’m supposed to do?”

Today, as a chef and business owner in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, it’s all clear. McQueen’s constant challenging of the status quo and commitment to carving out her own path propelled her to success and ultimately helped her create the life she leads today, which includes owning and operating seven-year-old Mawa’s Kitchen in Aspen and three-year-old the Crêpe Shack in Snowmass Village.

Chef Mawa McQueen. Photo courtesy of Mawa McQueen

Now, McQueen is taking yet another leap by launching Mawa’s GrainFreeNola, an organic snack brand with five vibrant flavors of granola which are paleo, vegan, keto, and gluten-free. 

Like many other recent culinary ventures, the new granola business was born of the coronavirus pandemic. In March 2020, when restaurants across Colorado shut down, McQueen and her husband and business partner Daniel began discussing ways to keep their restaurants’ staff members employed. At that point, McQueen had been making homemade granola for years, primarily for herself. Occasionally, when she made too much, she bagged some of the extra and sold the granola at Mawa’s Kitchen; every time, it flew off the shelves.

McQueen was initially hesitant, but eventually decided to proceed—on her own terms. Her team makes every batch of granola by hand, with McQueen encouraging them to actively infuse the ingredients with good energy. McQueen even avoids making granola when she’s upset or angry. “It’s really a labor of love,” she says. “When you make something with no human touch, and then you put it inside of you, there is a reaction. Even if I go big, a human needs to touch the granola in the process. We need to feel that energy.”

Each granola flavor is made with organic ingredients that have been thoughtfully chosen by McQueen—ingredients like cocoa nibs, tamarind, hibiscus flowers, chia seeds, and Medjool dates—and there are new flavors and granola bars in the works, too, featuring fonio, an ancient grain from West Africa. Her passion for healthy, organic foods is the driving force behind McQueen’s two restaurants and her catering and private chef ventures, as well; McQueen prepares custom in-flight meals for private planes in Aspen, Vail, Rifle, and Grand Junction.

McQueen’s journey to Aspen started in Ivory Coast, a small West African country that was a French colony until its independence in 1960. When McQueen was 12 years old, she moved to Paris with her family, sharing a small bedroom with eight of her 10 siblings in a neighborhood she describes as a ghetto. After years of watching The Cosby Show, McQueen dreamed of someday moving to America, where she believed she’d have more opportunity as a Black woman. 

First, though, she had to make a few stops along the way. She attended culinary school, then moved to England to work as an au pair and learn English. While there, she had a random encounter that changed her life. McQueen’s employer watched Oprah Winfrey’s TV show nearly every day. At first, McQueen was confused. “I never saw a white woman be fascinated by a Black woman,” she says. “I asked her, ‘Why are you watching this woman? And she said, ‘Mawa, this is one of the most powerful women in America.’”

In Oprah, McQueen found the mentor she didn’t know she needed. She loved watching Oprah’s show, hanging on her every word and reading whatever books she recommended. Watching the show helped McQueen quickly perfect her English, too. “For once, someone validated me,” she says. “I didn’t even know I could have a dream. I didn’t know the process, that what I was doing was dreaming. And everybody was saying, ‘Stop dreaming. Look at your reality.’ From Oprah, I realized that I can stand up and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to dream and I’m going to dream bigger.”

With inspiration from Oprah, McQueen followed through on her goal of moving to America. She got a job as a server at the White Barn Inn Restaurant and sister eatery Stripers Waterside Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine, not far from the Bush family’s summer retreat. The first day the famous political family—President George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush, and George W. Bush, then the sitting president—came into one of the restaurants, McQueen was so nervous she hid in the bathroom. Over time, she became so friendly with them that coworkers started calling her “Mawa Bush.” 

McQueen began splitting her time between Maine and Aspen, where she worked at the Little Nell during the winter season. She began offering her services as a private chef and decided to stay in Aspen permanently. Eventually, her food became so popular that she opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant. 

Today, McQueen draws on all the experiences she’s had and the places she’s lived to create healthy meals and snacks. And through it all, she’s remained true to herself. 

“It’s so funny to find my own voice as an African French American and say, ‘Can I encompass all that?’” she says. “I am American. I love the American culture and that’s what got me here, so how can I incorporate what I’ve learned here, what I learned from my motherland, and what I learned from my transition friends? How can I encompass this but make it a little healthy and change the stereotype that if you’re a Black chef, you just do soul food? My restaurant is healthy, vegan, and vegetarian, and I’m Black as I can be.”

Sarah Kuta
Sarah Kuta
Sarah Kuta is Colorado-based writer and editor. She writes about travel, lifestyle, food and beverage, fitness, education and anything with a great story behind it.