Listen to this article here
A Black woman-owned restaurant in Colorado has blasted past the competition to deliver a blend of cultural and vegan dishes. Mawa’s Kitchen offers balanced, vegan and traditional meals to nourish the body and heal the soul.
Notably, Black Americans are now more likely to be vegan than the general population. Despite our historic love for fingerlicking fried foods, COVID laid bare the stark health disparities our communities face. And now, more and more Black Americans are making the switch to a plant-based diet.
In an interview with theBWSTimes, the owner of Mawa’s Kitchen opened up about her African and Parisian roots, along with the legacy she hopes her flavorful food will create.
“I always had a dream to come to America because in France there’s no opportunity for African French people. It was a really rude awakening for me.” said Mawa McQueen, who founded her restaurant in the wealthy business district of Aspen, Colorado in 2006.
From Ivory Coast, to France, to England, and finally the United States
Mawa McQueen’s cultural and vegan dishes blend together two distinct parts of her identity: her African roots and her French upbringing. She didn’t travel to the United States until well into her adulthood. For her, the choice came down to opportunity and what kind of racism she was willing to put up with.
“Over there they just give you money and make you stay where they want you to stay,” she said about France. “So you don’t feel discrimination over there.”
But Mawa wasn’t like many of her African French peers, she said. She noticed at a young age that France had to import American Black actors to fill roles in French productions. The queen of vegan cuisine explained how in France there’s a lot of control over where African immigrants live and work. While France does pay for many peoples’ college tuition and is more liberal with their assistance programs, the lack of economic freedom gave her the impression that she wouldn’t be able to move up in her career.
“In France, if you’re a lazy ass and you want government support to just get by, Europe is the best place for you. The police don’t shoot you for nothing. We don’t have face to face racism like in America. The Black culture is so integrated. But France did a wonderful job undermining them. Not giving them power. Telling them where to eat and where to live and where to work,” Mawa said.
She had goals for her career as a chef and she wasn’t about to let anyone slow her down.
French racism vs American racism
Mawa said the only job she would’ve been able to find there was a dishwasher. Instead of letting the government define her potential, she made her way to America.
“In our French Constitution racism doesn’t exist. It’s very hard to sue,” Mawa said, noting how the French government has up until now pursued a completely colorblind approach to discrimination. “In America racism exists. But if you can make the money you can be successful. So I chose America because I don’t care if you don’t like me. It allows me to cook and I can be who I wanna be. So you have to choose, you understand?”
So, she made the journey to the United States, after first stopping in England to learn English.
Mawa’s Kitchen makes waves
Speaking on her first experience with American food, she said she couldn’t digest the foods when she first arrived, which inspired her to create her own.
“I had some problems when I got here. I couldn’t digest anything and realized the meals weren’t balanced.” Mawa said the burgers and fries, staples of an American diet, are overloaded with sugar and fat, while being deprived of nutrients. So she chose to do something different.
Meat lovers will still be satisfied with Mawa’s menu, which features crispy, breathtaking bacon and savory salmon as part of its breakfast options. Just don’t come in expecting a stereotypical soulfood menu.
“Occasionally people come and are like, ‘oh I thought you were gonna have shrimp and grits’. I’m like why? Because I’m Black,” Mawa laughed as her African accent gave breath to her warm, inviting personality. Though, she said overtime she did learn to incorporate more fried foods onto her menu.
Her biggest struggle, she said, was feeling confident enough to add her African and Parisian influences into her menu. The mostly White and wealthy area of Aspen isn’t the most likely place for a Black-owned restaurant. But being put in a box was the last thing Mawa wanted.
Beyond Black and White
“I didn’t want to be labeled as a Black food as a White food as a French food. Why would you put me in a corner? I’m more than that. I went to culinary school. I’ve lived on four different continents, and you’re gonna tell me this is what my whole life is reduced to?” Mawa said.
So, originally she just did typical healthy food to fuel the bodies of customers navigating the business district of Aspen around the airport. Homemade foods, fruits, salads and maybe a small filet mignon instead of a steak is what her first customers embraced.
“Oh she make Black food or oh she make White food. No. I make food that is comfort. It’s good, healthy, balanced and nourishing. Hell yeah.” Mawa said proudly. Her success grew quickly.
Introducing African influences to her vegan cuisine
The city of Aspen boasts several restaurants that offer vegan options. But “when people talk about healthy food in Aspen, they like to go to Mawa’s Kitchen,” Mawa said.
Once she gained popularity, she began adding elements of her culture into the menu. It started with fonio, an African grain similar to quinoa.
“I’m like hell no I ain’t doing no more quinoa. Enough giving money to the Peruvians. Let’s talk about Africa,” Mawa said. She had to trick her customers into getting them to try it, calling it fonio quinoa.
“Now they love it. I don’t need to add quinoa. I just say fonio. It’s sustainable, non GMO, full of protein and calcium. I mean it’s an amazing grain.”
Mawa’s boldness broke the glass ceiling of what was expected at an American restaurant. She began adding plantains and even yuca, a food similar to sweet potatoes. “So I’ve been adding my culture. Really I’m blending flavors you know?”
Mawa treats her food as if it has power to either heal or harm the body. She says the biggest differences between American cuisine and cuisine from other countries is the instant gratification and lack of balance. She said food is for nourishment and can save money from seeing a doctor.
“I’m trying to make sure when people come to my restaurant, they don’t have to think,” Mawa said. Along with her vegan and vegetarian options, Mawa recently added the Impossible Burger to the menu. Just don’t ask for fries with it. Mawa ain’t havin’ it.
“You need to eat vegetables my friend. Just because you vegan don’t mean you need to eat crap, too,” she said calling attention to the fact that even some plant-based foods are high in fat and starch. She said some of the vegan restaurants need to cut down on their calories.
Even the pandemic has inspired her cuisine, causing her to add her GrainFreeNola. It’s a packaged product containing nuts, grains, hemp seeds, dried organic fruit and basil leaves that customers can store on their shelves for months.
“The first thing my husband said to me was ‘hey I think you should make a little bit more granola so we can sell it and keep the doors open. I was like ‘do I look like the lady who makes granola?’ It was such an insult for a chef,” Mawa said. But with COVID causing nearly 40 percent of black businesses to close in 2020, she felt forced to take this new leap of faith.
Food has energy
“I made everything by hand. I would take the whole nut and crush it myself. It was like a spiritual thing I was doing,” Mawa said, explaining her process. “One thing I realized is there is an energy when someone makes things by hands versus machine-engineered. Whatever goes inside me is energy.”
She said that realization comes from her African roots.
“Because when you go to Africa, you see all these women singing and making food. It’s a happy moment. And everything is delicious. It’s the energy, the love, the joy.”
Mawa thinks it’s a large part of why Black Americans gather around soul food, even though it’s not healthy for us. Mawa said she’s not trying to force anyone to be a vegan or vegetarian. She just wants people to think of food as a healer. The African, Parisian and American chef drew parallels between our daily desire to groom our outer appearance with the cavalier attitude we sometimes have toward what we put inside our bodies.
“Please be a conscious eater. Being vegetarian is great. But moderation is OK. Be kind to yourself. Care more about yourself. Care about your intake.”
Mawa’s Kitchen offers dine-in, curbside pick-up and even in-flight catering.