Chef Leticia Is Working Hard To Put Brazilian Cuisine On The Map

It’s futile to resist introducing Leticia Moreinos Schwartz as the chef from Ipanema.

She was born and raised in that song-famous district of Rio de Janeiro and now, as a resident of Weston, is on the verge of achieving celebrity status as America’s Brazilian cooking guru.

She pops up on YouTube in dozens of daytime television cooking clips, a minor stardom born from the success of her first cookbook, “The Brazilian Kitchen.” It won the 2010 Gourmand Award for best book on Latin American cuisine. But there are two clips, both from public TV cooking shows, that exemplify where Moreinos Schwartz came from and where she might be going.

There she is on Sara Moulton’s “Week Night Meals” shopping at Banana Brazil, a favorite deli market in Danbury, and then cooking in Moulton’s kitchen. And there she is with Hubert Keller, the celebrity chef from San Francisco, but now she’s back where she started, talking and jogging with Keller on the beach in Ipanema, before taking him on a tour of her favorite Rio tea rooms, chocolate shops and restaurants. The clip is from one of several 30-minute episodes featuring her and Keller timed to coincide with this summer’s Olympics Games, which are being hosted in Rio.

“It was a marathon. It was exhausting,” Moreinos Schwartz says of the intense 10-day shooting schedule. Even so she says she enjoyed jogging on the beach, in tights. Besides, the Keller show probably will boost her cookbook sales, especially of the second, “My Rio de Janeiro,” published in 2013. The airtime should also be good for a cooking show of her own that is in development. Tentatively titled “Brazilian Kiss,” she says it “is a mission of joy and love. It’s not an easy task.”

Moreinos Schwartz, who has lived in Weston since 2005 with her husband and two children, has a cooking pedigree that is part privileged, part home-grown and part hard-earned. Both her parents were bankers, who nevertheless recognized a child so interested in cooking that they gave her her own recipe notebook when she was 8. One of the first she recorded was for Pao de Queijo, the small round cheese breads that she says are iconic to Brazilian tables.

She already was apprenticing with the family’s live-in housekeeper, a woman named Dilma, and remembers helping her shape the cheese breads, as well as the rounded fudge balls called brigadeiros that are another icon.

“We’d scoop them and roll them and make little portions,” she says. “We used to talk for hours when we were rolling. I was just a little child.”

By age 15, Moreinos was imagining a career in cooking, but with few culinary school choices in Rio, she got a degree in economics instead. Then, on a trip to New York City, she discovered the French Culinary Institute, now called the International Culinary Center.

“That’s when I had that aha moment. This is what I’ve been looking for all my life,” she says.

She enrolled in 1997 and started on what has become a reality TV subgenre.

“I lived the young (chef) lifestyle,” she says. “I was burning my arms and working in restaurants. I was washing dishes and peeling carrots for hours and hours. I was a line cook and getting yelled at. I really wanted to soak up everything I could.”

Because of her school and her commitment, she got internships at renowned restaurants like Le Cirque. What might have been a high-adrenaline career was interrupted by marriage and children and the move to Connecticut, first to Norwalk, then to Weston.

She made adjustments and began teaching cooking in continuing education classes. Those led to private classes and catering and back to the Culinary Institute for a course in food journalism. Even though she speaks Portuguese, Spanish and English fluently, Moreinos Schwartz worried she lacked the writing skills her book demanded.

“I wanted detail,” she says, to improve on existing Brazilian cookbooks she found too vague. “They write something like bake in oven until golden brown. They don’t give the temperature. They don’t say what are the possibilities for error.”

At the time, Brazil was enjoying its international “moment,” she says, with the approach of the 2014 soccer World Cup, then the Olympics (that will occur in the shadow of an enormous corruption scandal).

The TV appearances that followed “The Brazilian Kitchen” also led to an ongoing role with the Merck pharmaceutical company’s diabetes awareness campaign. As the Hispanic face of the campaign, Moreinos Schwartz is on the road several times a year teaching healthy recipes. Her counterparts are country singer Tim McGraw and actor S. Epatha Merkerson (best known for “Law and Order”).

More recently Moreinos Schwartz was chosen to do a series of Gravy Master commercials. She does not endorse the product; instead she appears in one spot as a backyard barbecuer, slathering Gravy Master on salmon. The company originally intended to cast a man in the role, but decided a woman would be more effective moving Gravy Master out of grandma’s pantry.

When the family moved to Weston, Moreinos Schwartz had the kitchen remodeled so she could give private cooking classes, and it doubles as a home kitchen. For breakfast, she may serve her children, 12 and 14, the cheese bread she learned to make as a young girl with Dilma at her side. For dinner, it’s often the most iconic Brazilian dish of all: rice and beans.

“Plain rice and beans. And meat, rice and beans. And chicken, rice and beans. And sausage, rice and beans. We just do rice and beans with everything,” Moreinos Schwartz says without apology.

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