A.A.S. Nursing ’89
CFO, Tilgner’s Specialized Smoked Seafood Products LLC
Oncology Nurse, South Peninsula Hospital
Hometown: Cordova, Alaska
Fun Fact: This February, JoAnn’s family recipe took both the Grand Prize and People’s Choice awards at the Symphony of Seafood showcase in Anchorage.
Tilgner’s Ruby Red Ole World Scottish Style Cold Smoked Sockeye Salmon is a mouthful to say, and a mouthful to savor. The dish, produced and distributed by UAA alumna JoAnn Tilgner and her family, is an award-winning slow-smoked rum-showered fish that recently took top honors at the Symphony of Seafood, an annual showcase organized by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. Tilgner’s is a small operation (five employees, four of them related) that just incorporated in September, but already they’re representing Alaska on the world stage.
Shifting gears and changing careers
Like most Alaskans, fishing was always a hobby for the Tilgners, but never a career. For most of their adult lives both JoAnn and her husband, Art, have worked in the medical field—Art opened a private practice in their hometown of Cordova and JoAnn assisted in the office for 14 years. After so much time in a clinical setting, JoAnn decided at age 40, to enroll in the School of Nursing at UAA.
“After I finished my degree, I went back to Cordova to work at a community hospital there, thinking that’s where my career would be,” JoAnn said. But the family soon found themselves on the move. Art left the practice to become a deputy flight surgeon for the FAA and the family moved to Peter’s Creek—“where we could park my husband’s airplane in our backyard and both work in Anchorage,” JoAnn explained. Later still, they headed to Ninilchik to be closer to commercial fishing. Art stayed with the FAA, though, and JoAnn became a nurse in Homer. Finally, after 40 years of marriage and two long medical careers, the Tilgners decided to dive into the seafood scene.
Fishing was on the Tilgners mind from the day they moved to the Kenai Peninsula. “I got a pretty good-sized building in Ninilchik with the idea that someday I was going to put a fish processing plant inside,” Art said. “So I built it to meet those specifications, but it was just our personal use process plant for years.” With the plant already in place and the sea at their doorstep, the Tilgner’s son Kris finally pushed the family to achieve a long-time dream. “Everybody just raved about [our salmon] all the time and said we should just sell it,” Art said. “So, after years and years of considering it, we finally did.”
“At my age I would never have done this, but he was really enthusiastic about it,” Art said of his son’s momentum. “I said, ‘OK, if you’re willing to put your hard-earned money and time into this then I’ll do it with you.’ It was his commitment that finally made it happen.”
And lucky they did. In just six months, Tilgner’s salmon is already available in high-end delicatessens and gourmet restaurants from Manhattan to Hollywood, as well as at Alyeska Resort’s award-winning Seven Glaciers Restaurant. International calls are coming in and—for the Anchorage-based readers—Natural Pantry now stocks their fish as well. The family is taking it slow and steady, focusing on high-end distributors. “Growing markets is kind of a brick-at-a-time kind of thing,” Art said. “We’re not out to be mass producers.”
Winning a grand prize after a mere six months in business may seem pretty fantastical, but it’s no fluke. The Tilgners have been honing their recipe and doing their homework for decades. Art first dabbled in smoked salmon in the 1970s more or less as a hobby. “I was always interested in smoking fish and I was just playing around with different ideas,” he explains. “I read a book about Scotch style and it intrigued me. It looked really fun to do, but really complicated. A little on the labor-intensive side,” he joked. “It came out great on the first try. I started tweaking it and finally found something I really like.”
How labor-intensive? Try 40 hours of preparation for one shipment. From the moment the fresh-caught fish arrive at the family plant, the Tilgners butcher, vacuum-pack, and flash-freeze the filets to a temperature of 25 below. Later, when an order comes in, the day-and-a-half preparations begin.
To ensure the salmon are sufficiently Scottish, the Tilgners use a Scotch-style brining technique, (to get overly specific, its a subcategory of the European style—which itself is a subcategory of general cold-smoking). Brining typically involves immersion in a salty solution, but there’s no fish-dunking involved in Scotch-style preparations. The Tilgners instead lay each filet on a bed of dry salt, coating an extra layer on top, and washing it all away after an exact period of time. The result: a firm, tender, buttery filet ready for the next step.
Filets are then slow-smoked over an alder wood fire stoked from the family’s own stand of alder trees. Add some salt, a little brown sugar, and a generous application of thick-as-molasses Jamaican dark rum and you have a recipe for success. Filets are now ready to convene with cream cheese and bagels, quiche, eggs benedict or a creamy pasta carbonara.
Overwhelmed by options? The Tilgners are also putting together a cookbook to help.
The world of competitive seafood
The Tilgners took several decades to perfect their family recipe, and the long wait resulted in a product ready to make immediate waves in the seafood world.
Recently, JoAnn and her family walked away from the 2014 Symphony of Seafood with a hat trick of accolades. The Symphony is an annual showcase hosted in both Seattle and Anchorage. Events are open to the public, and judged by a team of restaurateurs, chefs, caterers, and, according to Art, “people intimately involved in the seafood business.” The judging panel crowns a winner in three categories: retail, food service and smoked products. Since the competition is open to anyone, mom-and-pop operations like the Tilgners are stacked up against well-established billion-dollar seafood suppliers.
In their competition debut, the Tilgners signature smoked salmon faced down the competition and netted top honors in the smoked products category. They also won the people’s choice award in Anchorage by popular vote. Then, as a feather in their fishermen’s caps, the Tilgners even won the Grand Prize, a best in show award that came with round-trip airfare to the Boston Seafood Expo in March.
If the Symphony of Seafood is a play-off game, the Boston Seafood Expo is the World Series. It’s one of the largest industry events in the world, boasting 20,000 attendees and over 1,000 vendors all singularly focused on seafood. To get recognized in Alaska is an accomplishment, but to gain another nod at the World Expo is a sterling achievement. Stacked up against family providers and mega-chains from New Zealand to Norway, the Tilgners landed a coveted spot on the menu at the final night’s closing banquet, gaining visible recognition.
“It was a wonderful and exciting opportunity for a first-year business,” JoAnn said. “We sampled a lot of foreign and domestic fish and, I gotta say, I’d take wild Alaska salmon over Atlantic salmon any day. But as a life-long Alaskan, I can’t help it.”
A family affair
After their big-city big-banquet whirlwind tour of Boston, the Tilgners are back on the Kenai remaining a very family-operated business. JoAnn still works three days a week at South Peninsula Hospital, where she is the nurse coordinator in the oncology department. The other four days each week are spent as CFO of the growing family business, managing the office in Ninilchik. Art has continued his aviation medicine practice and son Kris balances supervising the processing plant with his electrician job at the ConocoPhillips gas-field in Beluga. JoAnn’s other son Robert, a commercial fisherman, now works full-time preparing the cold-smoked salmon and innovating new products. Aside from a few additional staff, it truly is a family affair.
Although JoAnn’s career is now breaking from medicine and leaning more maritime, she credits UAA with the successes she’s had thus far. “I really enjoyed the opportunity to leave Cordova at age 40 and just go up to Anchorage to enroll in classes,” she said. “UAA has a very good nursing program and, looking at it all from 25 years, I’ve had a very good nursing career.”
That being said, she’s now headed in a different direction. “Our ambitions and hopes are that, as our business grows, we’ll be able to quit our other jobs and devote our time and energy to this company full time.”
The family already has plans for a second seafood symphony next year. According to Art, they’re busy perfecting a dried salmon jerky “that is just going to be delicious.”
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement.