Chef Mawa McQueen launches a healthy alternative during global pandemic.
When chef Mawa McQueen, founder of Mawa’s Kitchen in Aspen and The Crepe Shack in Snowmass Village, both in Colorado, had to restrict business operations as the pandemic intensified last year, little did she know she’d be launching a new organic snack brand: Mawa’s GrainFreeNola (MGFN).
Unlike most granolas made with oats, grains and sugar, MGFN is organic, paleo, vegan and gluten-free. McQueen first began making the snack for personal consumption, prepping small batches at home, and only selling the excess at her restaurant. What she hadn’t been paying attention to would be the popularity MGFN had gained in that time – it ended up being her sustenance during the shutdowns in more ways than one.
“Each continent, culture and tribe across the world tells a story and provides unique nutrients to energize and heal,” says McQueen, who was born in Ivory Coast and raised in Paris, where she went to culinary school. The business owner also lived in England, Spain, and a few other places, before calling Colorado home. “Our granola brings together these ingredients. Every batch is sourced with intention and made with love.”
She attributes MGFN’s success to the synergy found in food that’s made by hand rather than that made commercially by machine. “I mix everything by hand, chop everything. It’s like therapy for me,” she shares.
There are five flavors to choose from at the moment —Berry Me, Green Machine, Health Nut, Out of Africa, and Tropical Paradise—and some of the organic ingredients include hibiscus flower, Turkish figs, cocoa nib and tamarind.
McQueen has plans for other future variations, including a nut-free option and one made with fonio, a West African heritage grain. Products are sold online on her website, where all ingredients are clearly stated, and McQueen hopes to have all of them more widely available by the summer.
For her inspiration, she considers seasonality first and foremost, as she is based in Aspen and has to be mindful of what is available and accessible there. Another source of inspiration is travel. “If I go to Costa Rica tomorrow, I am going to put something from there in my menu with some African twist because I love the mixture of culture.”
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“People assume because I look a certain way, I should cook a certain way. Most times they go to my husband or sous chef to talk to them [about the food], but I ignore it,” says McQueen, talking about the common perception that given she is Black, it is expected that she makes soul food.
“But I wasn’t raised on that. People were surprised knowing I make healthy food. But if you think about it too much, you give it too much power.”
The oldest of ten siblings, McQueen began cooking at a young age for her family, and cooking has been her passion. Her international background is evident in her two restaurants, where the menu offerings will pique any culinary fiend’s interest.
At Mawa’s Kitchen, the winter dinner menu includes currently includes ricotta and zaalouk (eggplant and tomatoes) and Lyonnaise potatoes, while The Crepe Shack fulfills any longing for sweet or savory crepes.
“The first two years I cried so much,” shares McQueen. “Nobody would come, and if they did, everyone wanted soul food. I stuck to my ground to not making fried chicken, shrimp and grits. This is not what I am about. People need to look at me and say she makes good, healthy food, and I introduce them to new ingredients every year, every season. I don’t want to be identified as only one thing. I hate to be put into boxes.”
McQueen has her sights set firmly on the future. “My plan with the granola is to scale it and make sure everybody gets it in all major stores. I want to change the way snacks are made in general. I also want to expand my crepe shop into a different state, and then I want to create something in Ivory Coast. I have been blessed to be able to dream and achieve. I want to make sure I provide service to my country.”
Though McQueen spent most of her youth in Paris, she never could relate. Racism reared its ugly head everywhere. With no Black role models around, she was enamored by series such as The Bill Cosby Show, which evoked a desire to be fluent in English.
Off to England it was as an au pair while she mastered the language. There she discovered Oprah Winfrey on television. “I had never heard of her. I was told she is the most powerful woman in America.”
There was no turning back when McQueen applied for the green card lottery on a whim (she thought the whole thing was a scam) and won. It was a one-way ticket to the land of her dreams, albeit not a destination where she might meet Oprah. But her dream of cooking for the president came true at a Relais and Chateaux property in Kennebunkport, Maine.
“I met George Bush; I couldn’t believe it. He came to our restaurant. It was one of the highlights.”
While summers were spent in Maine, winters were spent at a sister property in Aspen. After five years of going back and forth, McQueen settled in Aspen, opening a private chef business, eventually opening her two restaurants.
Despite COVID and challenges faced, she received the 2020 Colorado Governor’s Minority Business Award, a testament to her commitment to see her dreams come true and never give up, a la Oprah Winfrey.
Moving to the U.S., though she has experienced some racism, McQueen chooses to not focus on that. “I refuse to acknowledge it. I’m not denying it, but it’s not going to take my power away. Like Oprah said, ‘Just keep going, work harder.’ I choose to work harder.”
And with that same dedication, there is a bucket list item McQueen isn’t giving up on any time soon – meeting her inspiration and true role model, Oprah Winfrey.
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Visit Mawa’s Kitchen at 305 Aspen Airport Business Center F and The Crepe Shack at 61 Wood Road, Snowmass Village. Stop by www.grainfreenola.com online to purchase Mawa’s GrainFreeNola and follow along on Instagram.