“My journey to Aspen all started with a soap opera. I was living in Maine, watching ‘The Young and the Restless’ one night, when a romantic scene in Aspen caught my eye. It looked like a perfect Hallmark holiday picture. That was 30 years ago now.”
Today, three decades into a life of service in food on journeys through three different continents, beloved Aspen chef Mawa McQueen’s unique dishes are truly a cinematic reflection of the three diverse continents she has lived and grown up on—tastes of Ivory Coast, Paris, Spain, England, and America can all be found in menu items like truffled yuca fries, ricotta and zaalouk, duck confit grilled cheese, and Avocado Queen toast with bee pollen and microgreens.
“I never wanted to be a chef. I just love to cook. I love exploring,” McQueen explains, when asked about her culinary career.
You could say the word “chef” officially entered the mix in 2005, when she opened Mawa’s Kitchen in Aspen, followed by Snowmass Village’s The Crepe Shack in 2018, both projects conceptualized from her natural love of sharing flavors of the food she grew up eating. Now, McQueen has embarked on an exciting new culinary venture: grain-free granola.
Her GrainFreeNola line includes five different batches, created with five distinct flavor profiles.
“Each bag is made from my personal experience, from growing up in Africa, to moving to France and ultimately living here in the U.S.,” she says.
The Out of Africa mix includes ingredients from Africa such as tamarind, cocoa nib, cocoa powder, and hibiscus. (Here, she pays homage to Ivory Coast, which at one point was the long-time number one producer of cocoa beans.) The Green Machine is a totally American mix inspired by fresh smoothie bar offerings. Tropical Paradise, a mix inspired by her Caribbean side, includes figs, mango, and coconut.
“The fig trees remind me of the south of France. The Health Nut mix is true to my quest for wellness and fueling my body,” she says.
The ingredients also play well together; she used hibiscus in Out of Africa because it pairs well with the spices, but also in Tropical Paradise because it complements the mango and coconut. “I grew up drinking hibiscus in Africa and I know the health benefits and the flavor profile, so it was a natural fit much like the other ingredients you find in each variety,” she says.
From the get-go, this new line of granola was intended to create far more than an extra source of income after Covid-19 hit last year. A leader in every sense of the word, McQueen yearned to protect her staff and keep spirits alive, while also reinventing the meaning of all that granola could be.
“Covid-19 played a big role in inspiring me to share GrainFreeNola with the world,” she says, “but that inspiration quickly changed to a purpose. GrainFreeNola has allowed me to give back to my birth country, highlight beautiful African flavors, and empower women.”
Overseeing the creation of each batch gives her the satisfaction and knowledge that from conception to execution, the granola carries its integrity into the mouths of consumers.
“I believe in the synergy of handmade products. There is a chemistry between things that are touched and cared for,” McQueen says. It’s easy to feel that synergy when you’re around McQueen, a guest in her restaurants, or sampling one of her crunchy new snacks.
Perhaps one of the most exceptional aspects of McQueen’s approach is her devotion to reinventing “health norms.” Food doesn’t need to be expensive, complicated, or hard to source in order to be healthy. There is great value and beauty in her deep focus on the simplicity of food groups, like the grains of her home country.
“Next, I’m excited to start creating a nut-free snack using fonio and ancient grains. These are ingredients that I have personal connections to but also have a lot more added health benefits than other typical grains like quinoa,” she says.
“For me, true happiness and satisfaction are simple: creating and sharing my passion with others, educating them, seeing them smile after eating my food. Being a chef there is little to no glory, but since I have opened my kitchen, I am able to actually see and hear my customers and personally take care of them. That’s the real reward.”
Order all five at GrainFreeNola.com ($14.95/bag)
- Berry Me Featuring organic golden berries, goji berries, white mulberries, and gooseberries
- Green Machine With organic dried coconut, pumpkin seeds, banana chips, dried apple, and dried kale
- Health Nut Including organic almonds, cashews, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flax seeds
- Out of Africa Featuring organic medjool dates, tamarind, cocoa nibs, dried coconut, and ginger
- Tropical Paradise With organic dried figs, hazelnuts, dried mango, hibiscus flowers, and vanilla