Orphaned at the age of seven, Jorgina Pereira was placed in the care of her godmother in Rio de Janeiro, who worried that her temperamental young charge might try to poison her with arsenic. That was a popular method of dispatching characters on the radionovelas she listened to all day long in the kitchen. So although Pereira was permitted to watch as her guardian prepared food like the national dish, feijoada (black beans simmered for hours with up to seven different beef and pork parts), she was never allowed to cook.

Pereira didn’t want to stay in the kitchen anyway. At 13 she won a placement at a distant high school, but her godmother, who hoped to marry her off instead, balked at paying the bus fare. A social worker arranged another scholarship for the teen at a Catholic boarding school, but Pereira first had to prove her commitment by sitting out Carnaval in a convent. “In Rio that’s unthinkable,” she says. “Nobody believed that I was going to do it.”

She buckled down and graduated, studied social work at university, and enrolled in an international program that brought her to the University of Illinois at Chicago. She later earned her master’s in information systems and worked in the corporate world for 25 years.

Out on her own, she put into practice what she’d learned from observing her godmother. She set about mastering the multifarious cuisine of Brazil, which draws on African, Portuguese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, and European cooking.

A disciple of Martha Stewart’s, she cooked regularly for friends, and word of her parties got around. In 1990 she got a call from a caterer who’d won a bid to cook for a huge event involving five different cuisines, one of which had to be Brazilian. Could she do feijoada for 600? The caterer was oddly secretive about the client’s identity, and there was a catch: the feijoada had to be vegetarian–no chorizo, beef tongue, or pig’s feet. “I was like, ‘These Americans,'” Pereira says. “But I never say no.” She went into the kitchen and adapted the recipe as best she could. Later, the caterer reported that there had been none left at the end of the night.

It turned out Pereira had been cooking for the backstage party at a Paul McCartney concert at Soldier Field. “I said, ‘OK, if I can cook for him, I can cook for anybody,'” she says. Inspired by her idol’s escape from the corporate world and rise to domestic dominance, she took cooking classes and learned the ropes of the industry by working for other caterers. Before long she’d built a part-time business cooking for weddings, fund-raisers for nonprofit groups, and parties at HotHouse. She also threw parties for hire in her west-side Victorian three-flat, festooning it with tropical flowers and bringing in Brazilian musicians and costumed samba dancers. At some point in the evening guests usually ended up snaking around the table in a conga line. Last year Pereira left the business world to cater full-time.

“I’m proud that Brazil has so many different facets in cultural things,” says Pereira, who claims to be of African, Portuguese, and Tupi-Guarani Indian heritage. “I want to expose Chicago to more Brazilian things and take advantage of the holidays to do it.” She’s currently planning an event for May 13, the Brazilian holiday commemorating the abolition of slavery in 1888. The name of her company, Sinh‡, is the word Brazilian slaves used to address the mistress of the house.

This Saturday Pereira is hosting her first Baile de Sabado de Alleluia, a traditional post-Lent masquerade blowout held the night before Easter Sunday. She’s serving xinxim de galinha, a dish of chicken, cashews, and peanuts that Afro-Brazilians in the state of Bahia make in honor of the water goddess Oxum, who’s supposed to bestow wealth and love on the eater. She’ll round out the menu with basmati rice, Brazilian-style collard greens (sauteed instead of boiled), vegetarian black beans, and assorted grilled vegetables. Dessert is a lamb-shaped Easter cake covered in a “wool” of shaved coconut.

The party starts at 7:30 PM at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo. Guitarist Paulinho Garcia will front a four-piece carnival band to accompany costumed samba dancers. A samba instructor will be on hand for the unschooled. Tickets are $30, $35 at the door. Call 312-491-8200 or visit www.sinhaelegantcuisine.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.