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Aspen chef Mawa McQueen shares the flavors of her childhood with ‘Taste of Africa’ dinners

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Janie Joseland Bennett
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Aspen Public Radio
Chef Mawa McQueen garnishes several orders of pan-seared striped bass served with fermented yucca during her ‘Taste of Africa’ dinner at Mawa’s Kitchen in the Aspen Airport Business Center on Aug. 6, 2022. McQueen has been hosting the dinner series to share the flavors of her childhood growing up on the Ivory Coast of West Africa and later in the suburbs of Paris.

Pueden encontrar la versión en español aquí.

2022 was a busy year for local restaurant owner Mawa McQueen.

She was one of 20 James Beard semi-finalists for “best chef” in the mountain region, she had her first grand-tasting booth at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, she opened a new Latin-inspired restaurant called Mawita in Snowmass Village, and she still found time to experiment with the cuisines of her childhood.

McQueen has been hosting a series of community dinners at her restaurant Mawa’s Kitchen in the Aspen Airport Business Center.

The idea behind the “Taste of Africa” dinners is to share the flavors of her childhood growing up in Ivory Coast - in western Africa - and later in the suburbs of Paris.

“I think people have this picture of Africa being depleted and that's such a false picture — like we’re all starving over there,” McQueen said. “I never starved in my life. We had plenty of food to eat and everything was farm-to-table.”

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Eleanor Bennett
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Aspen Public Radio
Mawa McQueen uses a large wooden spoon to stir a West African dough called foufou while her sous-chef Julio Suriano holds the bowl steady. Suriano has worked with McQueen for about five years, but this was his first time learning to make the fermented yucca dish.

During one of these dinners on a Saturday night in August, McQueen used a large wooden spoon to mash a West African dish called foufou in a large silver bowl.

“So it's like flour and we are gonna cook it and it is gonna turn into a dough,” she said.

Preparing foufou is kind of like making mashed potatoes, but with fermented yucca instead — and according to McQueen, it’s a lot more work.

“It's a labor of love and that's why we don't do African dinner often,” she said.

On this particular night, the dinner menu includes chicken maffe curry, fonio fried rice, and striped bass with foufou.

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Eleanor Bennett
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Aspen Public Radio
Mawa McQueen’s family, including her sister Diana Kouame, far left, and her husband and business-partner Daniel McQueen, far right, enjoy alloco appetizers during ‘Taste of Africa’ night. McQueen and Kouame remember eating the fried plantain dish after school growing up in Ivory Coast in West Africa.

Some of McQueen’s family joined her for the dinner and she brought them out a warm plate of alloco appetizers to start.

McQueen’s sister Diana Kouame said the dish is the Ivory Coast’s version of fried plantains.

“It's so good, I’m used to eating it with my hands,” she said, taking a bite. “It’s sweet, smooth and excellent.”

McQueen said the dish reminds her of their childhood.

“It's very hard for me to describe the flavor,” she said. “It's like, I'm traveling back to the Ivory Coast, you know, it’s four o'clock, you get off school and then you get your alloco snack on the street and you do your homework and then you have dinner.”

Growing up, McQueen was the oldest of twenty siblings.

“I usually say 10 so that people don't get like, ‘No, she's lying,’” she said. “So literally I have 20 brothers and sisters and if you count me there’s 21 of us.”

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Eleanor Bennett
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Aspen Public Radio
Fonio fried rice sizzles in a pan under the watchful eye of Chef Mawa McQueen during a recent ‘Taste of Africa’ dinner. McQueen uses the West African ancient grain fonio in many of her dishes.

McQueen’s parents were often working and she was in charge of cooking for her younger siblings.

“I’m so grateful to my mom for allowing me to experience that," she said. “It taught me discipline. It taught me hard work, you know, I'm not afraid of anything.”

When McQueen was about twelve her family moved to Paris.

Later she went to culinary school and started working different restaurant jobs, but they were mainly in the front of the house.

“Being a chef in France was a little difficult, even though I went to culinary school because of the treatment of women,” she said. “But I made a promise to myself that the only way I will be in the kitchen is on my own terms.”

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Eleanor Bennett
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Aspen Public Radio
Chef Mawa McQueen drizzles a dipping sauce alongside the first orders of allez retour appetizers during her ‘Taste of Africa’ dinner series. McQueen makes her allez retour with spicy bison meat wrapped in a savory pastry dough.

Eventually McQueen moved to the U.S. and in the early 2000s she got a job working at The Little Nell hotel in Aspen.

“I worked in the morning at The Little Nell and then I'd finish at three and I would work at night as a chef and do my catering,” she said.

After about 10 years of being a caterer and private chef, she and her husband Daniel McQueen decided to turn the private catering space they were renting in the AABC into a restaurant.

“So that's how I started. It was only one meal and it was one long table,” she said. “It was family style because it reminded me of Africa — everybody sits together and you talk with your neighbor.”

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Eleanor Bennett
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Aspen Public Radio
Rose Laudicina, left, and her then-fiancé, now-husband Eric Boyden, enjoy their date night during the ‘Taste of Africa’ dinner on Aug. 6, 2022. Laudicina helps with the business-side of Mawa’s Kitchen during the day and this was her second time taking Boyden to eat at the restaurant.

Mawa’s Kitchen has come a long way since those early beginnings and McQueen said she’s been getting a lot of media attention in recent years, but being a chef and growing a business in Aspen isn’t easy.

“We work hard. It's a very labor intensive job, it’s 24-hours,” she said. “You’re not only dealing with customers, you’re dealing with staffing, you’re dealing with so many things and it’s painful.”

Coming up with new ideas like the ‘taste of Africa’ dinners is what keeps McQueen going.

“I enjoy experimenting with all the spices and creating a menu just brings me alive because that's how I express my creativity,” she said.

Back in the kitchen, the fonio fried rice sizzled away on the stove and the foufou was ready.

McQueen rang the order bell and the server's lined up to take the first dishes out.

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Eleanor Bennett
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Aspen Public Radio
Mawa McQueen, left, and her sister Diana Kouame stand in front of the bar at Mawa’s Kitchen towards the end of a busy ‘Taste of Africa’ dinner on Aug. 6, 2022. McQueen grew up cooking for her 20 younger siblings and said that experience was instrumental in her culinary journey.

In the dining room, Eric Boyden was on a date with his then-fiancé, now-wife Rose Laudicina, who helps with the business-side of Mawa’s Kitchen during the day.

This was Boyden’s second time eating at the restaurant and he was excited to be back for ‘Taste of Africa’ night.

“It's something I've never tried before, so I wanted to try something new,” he said. “It’s great to have some exotic flavors for Aspen.”

For her part, McQueen said she wants to keep bringing a diversity of cultures and new flavors to Aspen and the AABC — and she wants to pave the way for other mom and pop businesses to do the same.

“I don't want a kid to grow up here and think this is it,” she said. “How do you learn about someone else’s culture, if you don't know the food, if you don't know the soul things that nourish them, you know, that bring them alive? Having other cultural food, you know, Thai food, Indian food, all those things are so important for a community. And that's my vision, that’s my hope.”

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and Morning Edition anchor. Eleanor has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, the Valley’s COVID-19 eviction and housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.