Alaska News

Succulent sockeye from Cordova a triple crown winner in Alaska's Symphony of Seafood

CORDOVA -- A family with deep roots in Cordova put their cold-smoked Alaska sockeye salmon recipe to the test in the 2014 Alaska Symphony of Seafood and came away a triple-crown winner.

Tilgner's Ruby Red Ole World Scottish Style Cold Smoked Sockeye Salmon captured the grand prize, first place in smoked products competition and the Anchorage People's Choice award, voted on by participants in the gala soiree earlier this month.

Art Tilgner, who had a family medical practice in Cordova, and his wife, Jo Ann Tilgner, born and raised in Cordova but living in Ninilchik these days, and the succulent cold smoked salmon they produce already has a steady customer base, from a gourmet restaurant at the Alyeska Ski Resort south of Anchorage to a deli in Brooklyn, N.Y. On tap, said Art Tilgner, are possible sales to a major national retail box store and a natural food store in Anchorage, plus wholesale opportunities throughout the New York metropolitan area.

"It's kind of ironic that I ended up being a doctor in a fish town," mused Art Tilgner, who grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, "with a fishing pole and a gun in my hand from the time I was a little boy. I read all about Alaska when I was a little kid," he said, knowing that some day he would go there.

Tilgner started college at Colorado State University with plans to study fisheries and wildlife management, but eventually switched majors, got a degree from the University of Colorado Medical School and went into a general surgery practice in Denver, while starting to look for options in Alaska. "I heard about Cordova and I'm so glad I went there," he said. "It was an absolute paradise for me."

He took over the only medical practice in town from a physician who needed to move back to the Lower 48. Somewhere he found an article on cold-smoking fish European style and was intrigued. He fashioned his first cold smoker out of a freezer he found at the dump in Cordova, and that was the beginning of his research that produced the prize-winner salmon. Those who got to sample his product said they should be selling it commercially, "but I was busy doing other things," he said.

"We've been making this recipe now for 35 years," said Jo Ann, a native of Cordova, and an oncology nurse at South Peninsula Hospital in Homer. She was an employee at Tilgner's medical practice for 14 years, during which time when the couple fell in love and married. Eventually Jo Ann earned a degree in nursing at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Now she has a combined career as office manager for Tilgner Smoked Fish and as an oncology nurse at South Peninsula Hospital in Homer.


Their son, Kris Tilgner, is the vice president and facility maintenance technician, and works as an electrician for Udelhover at the ConocoPhillips gas field in Beluga. Another son, Robert Noe, is involved in produce development, and many other roles needed to keep the company moving. Debra Hess, formerly with Deep Creek Packing at Ninilchik, is the production supervisor. "She is an excellent fish cutter, a real asset to us," said Art.

The company purchases most of its sockeye salmon from setnetters on the Kenai Peninsula, but has also bought some from Copper River Seafoods, in which the Tilgners also have long-time Cordova roots. This past year they purchased 3,000 sockeye salmon from local setnetters and blast froze the fish, so the smoked salmon product can be produced as needed.

One steady customer is deli owner Pete Shelsky in Brooklyn, N.Y. That connection was made when a woman on a charter fishing trip in Ninilchik sampled some of Tilgner's smoked salmon and asked if the company would send a sample to Shelsky's deli in Brooklyn. Now Shelsky and his partner are looking at being the wholesale representative for Tilgner's smoked salmon in the New York metropolitan area.

Tilgner's smoked salmon is also featured on the website for Copper River Seafoods in a heart-smart sampler and other categories

When the Tilgners came up short on their supply of red salmon this year, Art turned to Scott Blake to buy some. Turned out that Blake had sampled some of the cold smoked salmon already, and the deal was made, plus a separate decision to also feature Tilgners product on the Copper River Seafoods website.

The Tilgners first began selling their product last September, after getting an Alaska Department of Commerce permit to purchase salmon from commercial fishermen.

Before that, mused Jo Ann, "we used to give it away for Christmas gifts."

While Jo Ann continues to work as an oncology nurse and Art as a medical examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration, they will take a break in mid-March to show their product at the Seafood Expo North America/Seafood Processing North America, formerly known as the International Boston seafood Show.

The event attracts more than 1,000 exhibitors. With more than 19,000 attendees, it is the largest seafood trade show in North America.

Contact Cordova Times reporter Margaret Bauman at mbauman(at)