It all started in 2005 with crawfish.
Illinois-born Oakland resident Sheree Williams, who had come to California in 1998 with her Dodge Shadow on the trailer pulled behind her, met Richard Pannell at the old Crawfish Festival in the Delta town of Isleton. A few years later, Pannell, an African-American chef from Los Angeles and a budding culinary celebrity, asked Williams to help him restart a magazine devoted to black chefs that he'd published a few years earlier in Watts.
Williams, who had been working in corporate marketing in the Bay Area, suggested he start it online first to see what sort of readership it could attract, and Cuisine Noir was launched.
"This was really unchartered territory for us," says Williams, 39, who was new to online publishing. "But around that time black chefs like Pat and Gina Neely were starting to get hot on the Food Network, so this turned out to be good timing."
We spoke recently with Williams, who took over as publisher in 2009 and two years later launched the quarterly print version of Cuisine Noir. Her comments have been edited for clarity and space.
Q: Talk a little about those early online days. They were tough, huh?
A: We didn't really know how to operate an online model, so it was a challenge at first. But we kept the main focus on the food and we started getting a good response from readers. Food Network was really starting to diversify, so we interviewed Pat and Gina Neely from the show "Down Home with the Neelys," and then Aaron McCargo Jr., who won the Next Food Network Star in 2008, and then Rock Harper, who won the third season of "Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen."
Q: So the timing was fortuitous?
A: It turns out we founded Cuisine Noir just as black chefs were really coming from being behind the scenes to being out front.
Q: And then you brought out the print version?
A: We launched the magazine in September 2009, and it was focused on food, wine, travel, and product reviews. There was no competition, and to this day we haven't seen anyone else doing what we're doing.
Q: But print must be a challenge?
A: It's all about the numbers. We first started building an online audience, going from under 2,000 monthly viewers to nearly 8,000 now and we continue to grow, both here and overseas. But I had to learn to stop trying to build Rome in a day, and take it a day at a time.
Q: Where's your revenue from?
A: We sell advertising, but it's always a struggle. Advertisers are peeking at us, like "Who are you?," We come out quarterly and we're up to 40 pages after starting with 32, but we're planning on growing that page count. We print 5,000 copies that are free online, at some restaurants and trade shows. We've got four employees and we work out of my home office in Oakland.
Q: It all seems exciting, but it also sounds incredibly challenging.
A: It's hard just being a new publication and trying to get out in front of advertisers to show them we have a great product. We're a niche publication and we're the only one that's showcasing black food and travel. But we have a great and diverse readership, which is wonderful.
Q: So there's also plenty of opportunity for you to flourish?
A: The opportunity is that by being in that niche, we can continue to offer content that no one else is offering. We do surveys and our readers are very sophisticated and highly educated; they shop at Whole Foods and travel overseas, love great restaurants and fine wine, and watch the Food Network. They're big foodies; we have a readership with very sophisticated palates.
Q: So what's the future look like for Cuisine Noir?
A: We want to go from quarterly to every two months, and I'd like to continue to show the world that African-American cuisine is about much more than just soul food. That's what a lot of people think when they see our magazine, but you have black chefs like Govind Armstrong and others who are French-trained and can throw down in a kitchen with the best of them. I want to use the magazine to try to change that perspective because it's not based on reality. While you have the Neelys, who love their barbecue, you have other African-American chefs who can do foie gras just as good as Wolfgang Puck can.
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689; follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.
Birth date: Feb. 7, 1974
Birth place: Waukegan, Ill.
Position: Publisher/editor-in-chief of Cuisine Noir magazine
Previous jobs: Safeway in Pleasanton, Macy's West in San Francisco and Sacramento and Visa USA in Foster City
Education: Bachelor's degree in advertising, University of Illinois, and master's in integrated marketing communications
Family: Single, no kids
5 FACTS ABOUT SHEREE WILLIAMS
1. She is a country girl at heart and looks forward to escaping city life in Sonoma County one day.
2. She is a "retired" marathon runner after completing three, one of which was in Hawaii.
3. She loves to travel and has been to more than 20 U.S. states as well as countries in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia.
4. A day of relaxation for her is a nice motorcycle ride (on the back of the bike) to Napa for a day of wine tasting and great food.
5. Loves cooking and trying new recipes when she has time and has considered going to culinary school.