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The Zionist Connoisseur: The story of Gloria Rootshtain

Gloria with her medals and trophy at the Thursday night Smorgasbord buffet.

People make Aliyah for many different reasons, and it is not uncommon for people to emigrate due to difficulties in their homeland. On the other hand, not many people would be willing to give up and sell a very successful hotel and catering business, pack their bags and move their family to Israel. This is the story of Gloria and of her late husband Isaac Rootshtain.

Undoubtedly, Gloria is most well known for her world-famous culinary skills.

For any old-time Johannesburg local, the name “Gloria Rootshtain” is synonymous with top quality kosher food and hospitality. This short article tells the story of how this gourmet food business came to being, and how Gloria became known as “the Connoisseur”.

Gloria was born in Bloemfontein, and when she was one year old her family moved to Johannesburg where she spent her childhood and teenage years. When she was 18 years old, while working as a Clerk at Barclays bank she met her future husband, Isaac.

From a young age Gloria already had a magical touch in the kitchen, however the idea of turning her cooking passion into a career only started soon after her marriage. At that time Isaac and Gloria were living in Rosettenville where Gloria did accounting for a boot manufacturing company. They happened to have a non-Jewish neighbor who was involved in cake decorating.  This woman was very impressed with Gloria’s baking, and the two women subsequently made a deal. Gloria would teach her how to bake in exchange for learning cake decorating.

Gloria realized that her baking skills had great potential and her next step was to set up shop in the Rosettenville Corner complex, it was called “Gloria’s delicatessen”. It turned out to be a very popular kosher establishment with a bakery and a takeaway on the first floor and a full meat restaurant on the ground floor.

Then one day a Rebbettsen came into the store and requested that Gloria cater a Shabbat Bar Mitzvah. At first Gloria was hesitant as she didn’t even have a chef and she was doing all the cooking herself, but eventually she decided to take on the challenge. Needless to say, the event was a huge success and “Gloria’s delicatessen” eventually evolved into “Gloria’s Catering”. The Rootshtains subsequently took up premises at City and Suburban where they catered many functions under the supervision of the Beth Din.

Aside from cooking and baking, one of Gloria’s biggest passions has always been Zionism. Indeed, in 1972 the Rootshtains decided that it was time to make Aliyah. They sold the family business, packed their bags and were off to Tel-Aviv.  However, this move was short lived as about half a year later the catering business wasn’t doing well under the new management and Rootshtains returned to South Africa.  Then, a short time after they returned an offer came up to buy an old hotel named The Cranbrook. The Rootshtain’s bought the place, rebuilt it and with the help of Rabbi Moshe Doman, kashered all the kitchens and this is how the famous Connoisseur Hotel came into being. The Connoisseur is remembered by many people as a favorite venue for any type of celebration, and of course the famous Thursday Night Smorgasbord was the talk of the town.  Every week, no less than 100 unique dishes were on beautiful display.

Gloria (second from right) single-handedly representing South Africa at the International Conference and Exhibition on Jewish Culinary Art in Jerusalem. Notice the large teams of male chefs from the other countries.

As it happened, Gloria’s fame eventually reached international standards when in January of 1978 at the first International Conference and Exhibition on Jewish Culinary Art she single handedly represented South Africa. This was no simple task as she was the only female chef competing against teams of up to 18 men from all over the world. To complicate things further, as Gloria arrived in Jerusalem, she discovered that due to faulty communications, unlike all the other competitors who were given the use of Jerusalem's 5-star hotel kitchens, she was the only competitor who had to make do with a small and poorly equipped training school kitchen. Instead of making a fuss and complaining, Gloria simply got to work and was off to the Shuk to buy ingredients. On the first day of the competition she prepared a four-course buffet for 100 people, in addition to a sweet display for 600 guests on the second day, and a traditional dinner for 100 guests on the last day. Against all odds the South African dishes were favorites amongst both the crowd and judges and Gloria brought her fellow South Africans much pride and honor by winning two gold and two silver medals. In addition, due to her outstanding performance, she was first woman in the world to be granted membership in the “Worlds Association of Cooks Societies”. 

In addition to being one of pioneers in providing top quality kosher catering services for the South African Jewish community, she is also the author of the best selling “Cooking with a Connoisseur”, first published in 1982 and has since been translated into many languages.

As mentioned earlier, Zionism has always been a prominent part of Gloria’s life. Starting at age 16 and throughout Gloria’s successful career, she has been actively involved in various Zionist organizations. She was a member of the Woman Zionist Council, as well as the Zionist Federation as Chairman of the Union of General Zionist Organisation.

Israel was at the heart of Gloria’s life and she spent many days and nights going from door to door fundraising during the six-day war. The Rootshtains eventuality made Aliya for a second and final time in 1989. Gloria now lives in Neveh Simcha in Jerusalem where she is always happy to share memories, stories and delicious food.

 

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