Amber Williams grew up in Oak Cliff, Texas. The small area is within the Dallas city limits, one of the most bustling metros in America that’s home to billionaires like Mark Cuban and Walmart heiress Alice Walton.
Conversely, Oak Cliff is home to some of the country’s poorest.
The median household income for the area sits at $31,063 and nearly half its population lives below the poverty line. This year, East Oak Cliff got its first grocery store after the area didn’t have a nearby supermarket since 2020. Despite this, Williams, a successful chef and serial entrepreneur, still lives in the town she was raised in.
“It’s just very peaceful,” she tells ESSENCE. “But it just so happens to still be in the food desert.”
As a young girl, Williams saw her single mother regularly make the drive to food banks in nearby towns, and make magic out of the limited options they were given. That resilient creativity inspired Williams to pursue a full time entrepreneurial career in the culinary arts in August 2015. She now owns and operates Le Rouge Cuisine, a Creole fusion catering company that’s reflective of Williams’ Texan and Louisianan roots.
Aside from catering for major companies and providing private chef services, Williams has launched a project that takes her lived experience to address food disparity, an issue that spans many underserved neighborhoods across the country.
Her new cookbook and accompanying resource guide called, Surviving the Food Desert, offers step-by-step directions for creating healthy, affordable meals using ingredients that are typically found in food pantries and nearby convenience stores.
“This is extremely personal,” Williams tells ESSENCE. “I wrote the book in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic while the world shut down and I lost 91% of my revenue that year when COVID hit. So, as an adult, still living in the food desert, I found myself back at those food pantries I depended on as a child. And because of my training, fortunately I knew how to make those items work for me—but many families don’t. That’s where the idea came from.”
She says the book isn’t just a collection of recipes.
“In between each chapter, they’re broken up by little paragraphs, like paragraphs of hope,” Williams explains. “Some have scriptures in there, but basically there are five ways to survive your desert. And although it says food desert, that desert is meant to be replaced with any dry aspect of your life. You could be in a relational desert, you could be in a career desert, you could be in a financial desert. But those five tips are ways for us to survive.”
The affirmative passages were written during the pandemic when she said she was at her lowest.
“Most of the book was written in the late night hours, 02:00 a.m.—can’t sleep, stressed out,” Williams says. “And I just started writing those things in my iPhone, in my notes. The recipes came from some of the recipes are actually from my mom, from childhood, and some of the recipes were actually food that I created again, in the midst of trying to keep my sanity and it just poured out of me,” she says, explaining it took only four months to complete.
“This is so much bigger than me—people are literally nutrient deficient because of their zipcode. If I can take what I learned, survived and thrive through to help others, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Chef Amber Williams’ book can be purchased here.