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“The only thing that likes raw fish are cats,” Robert Schuffler announces. Schuffler, a spry 92-year-old who has the air of someone who’s absolutely content with what he’s done with his life, is usually genial, bordering on twinkly. But there are certain subjects he gets passionate about, and the modern trend of cooking fish rare in the center is clearly one of them. “That’s why I think the youngsters and their husbands don’t eat the fish, because half of it is raw,” he says. I don’t dare ask if he’s ever had sushi.
Schuffler, the retired founder of Robert's Fish Market on Devon Avenue, has seen a lot of changes in the fish business since he started working for an uncle with a chain of fish stores at age 14. Back then fresh fish markets dotted Chicago, and the teenaged Robert chopped ice from a block delivered by an iceman and helped make late-night deliveries around the Jewish south side. After World War II, though, frozen fish filled supermarket freezer cases, and you had to search ethnic neighborhoods for the few remaining markets selling fish you could poke and sniff for yourself.
Thankfully, fresh fish is again common at retail. Only it’s not the same fish. Today’s fish counters get ocean fish by air from all over the world, which is why the standbys of the Chicago fish business that Schuffler grew up with—locally caught lake fish like whitefish, trout, and perch—are often considered passe by cooks and restaurantgoers.
Yet there’s a lot to be said for them, as I found while working on my Sky Full of Bacon video podcast about a Lake Michigan whitefish fishery. While they may not have the robust meatiness of, say, halibut, if you want a mild white fish, a Great Lakes whitefish is superior (no pun intended) in every way to the ubiquitous tilapia flown in from Mexico or South America—fresher out of the water, more local, at least as sustainable, and with an actual taste of its own, sweet and with a hint of cucumber, that bland farmed styrofish can’t match. Not to mention that at Robert’s Fish Market it’s a buck fifty a pound cheaper.
Schuffler came to the north side in the 1950s, when his father opened a store in a now vanished Jewish enclave around Lawrence and Kedzie. By the 1970s he had retired, but a friend with a fish store on Devon Avenue asked him to help out, and within a few years he had opened Robert’s in the Jewish shopping strip at 2916 W. Devon.
Today the store is owned by Arturo Venegas, who started working for Schuffler when he was 13 and shows, in a more unassuming way, his mentor’s confidence when he talks up the merchandise. But Schuffler’s idea of retirement still involves showing up at work most days, ready to help out with the cutting, or at least the schmoozing of the customers he’s known for 50 years.
Small-town sleepy the morning I shot video there, around the Jewish holidays the shop is packed with customers vocally and animatedly examining the fish and cross-examining the staff. “It’s my therapy,” Schuffler says half-proudly and half-sheepishly, but it’s no mystery why he chooses the vitality of his old shop over sitting at home.
One thing Schuffler still does himself is make gefilte fish, the fish balls boiled in fish broth that are a staple of Jewish holiday celebrations such as Rosh Hashanah. His recipe isn't secret—after all, he’s interested in selling you the fish you’d use to make them—but longtime employee Dan Burchfield says “His are the best. When I hear he’s bringing some in, I make sure to get mine before they’re gone.”
In the video, Schuffler talks about how his customers have changed over time, why he’s never worried about pollution in the lakes his fish come from, and why smoked fish is an ideal baby food. Here’s his recipe for gefilte fish:
Robert’s Famous Gefilte Fish Recipe
Per net weight of ground fish (preferably trout, walleye, and whitefish):
1 egg per pound
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 lb. of onions per 4 lbs. of fish
1 oz. of cold water per lb.
Put the head and bones in a pot with enough water to cover the fish balls.
Put equal amounts of spices in water and in fish.
Bring water to a boil.
Make fish balls and drop them into the boiling water.
After 1 hour of cooking, taste the soup; if any spices are lacking just add to soup. Cook for about 2-1/2 hours.