By Ali Margo | January 4, 2016 | Food & Drink
Indian, Italian, Ivorian—at the Aspen Business Center, Mawa McQueen's hands-on cooking seminars serve up the flavors of the globe.
Moroccan-inspired Colorado rack of lamb tagine with couscous and winter vegetable saffron.
“Oprah is going to come here someday, to meet me,” Mawa McQueen says, her chin jutted forward, her eyebrows raised as if to dare you to disbelieve her. After hearing her story, you realize her statement doesn’t sound so far-fetched.
McQueen, 41, owner and cofounder of Mawa’s Kitchen, a full-service catering company and cooking school, is, like her cuisine, a fusion of diverse cultures and influences. Born and raised in the Ivory Coast, the eldest of 11 siblings, she recalls growing up poor: “I was sleeping on the floor. I didn’t have shoes. The only thing I had was family.” When McQueen was 13, her family moved to Paris. Her mother worked constantly, and McQueen, as the oldest, was responsible for feeding everyone. “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner—it was all me,” she says. “You just know when you’re good at something, and I knew I was good at cooking.”
From there she forged her own path, starting with culinary school in Paris in the late ’90s, then on to London to learn English while working as an au pair, before embarking for America, where she was part of the team that launched the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine, whose diners included President George H.W. Bush and his family. (She once declared to her mother that she’d meet the president of the United States, much the way she declared she would meet Oprah Winfrey.) An exchange at The Little Nell brought her to Aspen in 2002. Four years later she started catering on the side. And in 2014, Mawa’s Kitchen was born, cofounded with her husband, Daniel Liesener, a Berliner she met in Maine, who handles the business side of the restaurant.
In Aspen, McQueen has captured the hearts—and bellies—of locals and visitors alike with private, customizable cooking classes for adults and children. Her French country–inspired kitchen—located in the industrial Aspen Airport Business Center—is decidedly unpretentious, filled with big prep tables and metal shelves stuffed with cooking equipment and supplies. A long, funky, studded-top table occupies the dining room, surrounded by ’50s-style diner chairs in sparkly vinyl and chrome, beneath cylindrical crystal chandeliers. It’s a space that keeps the focus on the food, the company, and the fun.
McQueen is best known for her love of international cuisine, particularly from her native Africa. But whether it’s Thai, Italian, Indian, or Israeli, she recruits chefs from those countries to come to Aspen and do it right. “I don’t care if they’re classically trained,” she says. “It has to be authentic.”
Mawa’s Kitchen offers public classes as well, with date-night couples’ and teen classes among the most popular. There’s also the Aspen Chopped class (based on the popular Food Network show), in which students make dishes from whatever seasonal produce and local, Paonia-raised meats are delivered by “Farmer Jack” Reed twice a week.
For McQueen, who also owns Wine in Heels, a specialty events firm catering to women, the most important ingredient is the company. “I want you to feel like it’s home. There’s nothing polished here. We don’t have a script; we just let the energy fow—and there always has to be plenty of wine,” she says, tossing her head back with a hearty laugh. “I make everyone dance before they eat. They all think I’m crazy, but we’re going to have fun here or we’re going home.” 305 AABC, Ste. F, 970-544-4862
photography by C2 photography