Interview with Annie Tonsiengsom from Actual Industries

Actual Industries is partnering with Oregon Culinary Institute to film and edit a three part documentary intended to capture the scope of the Red Wattle Heritage Pig Project, including the progressive food philosophy, the food and beverage pairing angle, and the final dinner events (“Suds and Swine” on Tuesday, November 9th and “Wine and Swine” on Wednesday, November 10th).

Annie Tonsiengsom from Actual Industries

You own a video production company but have a serious love of food. Where do these two worlds meet?

My husband, Brad Mosher, and I started Actual Industries with Tiffany Davies, our business partner. Brad and I started our careers in New York City, which is a wonderful place to get started in this business. Landing at Food Network, for me, was fortuitous. I’ve always loved food, but I didn’t know how deeply until I took that job. It sounds corny, but I truly believe food can change the world – when talking to someone, anyone, about food, your differences, political, cultural or whatever, don’t have to come up. Food is the common uniter – we all have the basic need to eat. Personally, that’s why I love food programming. When you start talking about good food and memories people have of favorite foods and past experiences, you can connect with anyone, there’s a lot of bonding that happens.

Tell us more about the New York experience.

I remember reporting into NBC, being handed a badge, and walking onto the Saturday Night Live floor. It didn’t take me long to realize that Manhattan is one big movie set – on the commute to Madison Square Garden, at Penn Station, I’d take the subway up to Times Square and look around thinking “I am definitely in the middle of the action.” I recently watched ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ and I kept thinking that’s what my life was like.

How did you get the Food Network job?

I went the temp agency route, since I knew many of them were working with different production companies. I got really good at taking those standard temp agency tests. So I would go in, ace their test, then ask “who are your clients?” I was pretty bold. I found the one that worked with the Food Network and got a job there. After a month I got a job offer from them as the Executive Assistant in the Programming Department. At that time, back in 1999, the Food Network was strictly about cooking. Emeril was on the air, and he was the network’s number one commodity. The idea for Iron Chef came up, and I was one of the very vocal people on the team stating the belief that Iron Chef could really put our network on the pop culture map. Chef Morimoto vs. Bobby Flay was the first one. I remember sitting in the audience during the live taping of the first U.S. episode. At one point, the fans were chanting, and we knew instantly that it would be a runaway hit. I was able to have a lot of input on the programming at that time, and that was fun. The programming was smart, interesting, and educational.

What changed?

For me, it started with 9/11. Brad was working in the World Trade Center in insurance while I was enjoying a blossoming TV production career. On that particular day, I had made him late, and he ended up missing the train. He was on the first train that was diverted because of the attacks. As we processed what had happened, I remember saying to him “Life is too short for you to die working in insurance. We both went to school for video production. Let’s give our dream a shot.” So he got a job as a Production Assistant on Emeril’s show. We got married after in 2002 and honeymooned in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C. We fell in love with Portland and decided to move here.

How did Actual Industries begin?

Brad and I had both been working at Nike. I started by freelancing at the Internal Communication department doing video production. Brad had a staff position. We were a part of the reduction of force a year and a half ago right before Maggie, our daughter, was born, and we decided it was the right time. I believe when something that seems negative happens, you have to find a way to turn it into a positive, and that’s what we did. We launched Actual Industries in 2009.

What has it been like since you got Actual Industries off the ground?

Creating a company with my values at the heart of it has been really exciting for the next phase of my career. I have to keep it close to my heart or I’ll be creating something that I can’t sustain. All of the people involved, as we keep adding people, that collective personality and shared values are what’s really exciting. But it has been a crazy ride. It is a constant learning process, but we are now getting our feet firmly beneath us. As a necessity, I’ve had a lot to learn about being a business person. It has to come as a vision of what company can be, and while it’s a shared vision, it’s what we are passionate about. Food, apparel, sports and tech – those are the areas of passion and expertise for our team. Getting to this point where we understood this about ourselves and could call these our core competencies was important, because when you deliver a project, the gut feelings and instinct that you’ve developed help you to understand what’s working and what you need to be successful.

It’s kind of crazy that we started this when Maggie was born. We’ve given birth to two babies at the same time. Knowing that the love, passion, and hard work that we put into each will feed and nurture each one is really motivating.

How did you get involved in OCI’s Red Wattle Heritage Pig Project?

Well, we met some people from OCI, and in the first meeting it was obvious we had a lot of shared values, including a shared passion for food. Business wise – what makes OCI so special is that everyone wants to be there. Nobody is treated like a line item in a budget. This energy and passion will show in the end product (the video) that we create of this project. And the food industry and the film production industry have a lot in common. Our worlds match really well in terms of the work ethic you need to have to make something special.

The team from Actual Industries filming the Chehalem Winery tasting

Any other thoughts on this project?

Personally, I’m interested in the outcome. As a consumer, I buy what I call “happy meat,” that is product from animals that are treated humanely. Sadly, I’m not always impressed with the differences. I started learning about organic certification process, and while it’s another tangent, it shed some light on some things for me. But OCI, being a local business with an educational mission…I want to be there to capture all those moments when the light bulbs flash in the students minds, that “a ha!” moment, because that‘s also the experience you want diners to have. You want them to understand the food and what went into it cultivating, harvesting, and preparing it. There are ethical and financial considerations to consider. Your average person can taste the difference between the pizza from Hot Lips and Pizza Hut. Most people, especially in Portland, understand that you are going to pay more for what’s local and sustainable. This is what attracted me to the project. Tiffany and I both have a passion for food and a dedication to the local/sustainable food movement. I believe that’s also one of the reasons students choose to attend OCI and why our company wants to be involved in this project. We both share a common commitment to the future of our food and community. I can see that OCI is creating the next generation of culinary professionals going out into the industry and that’s something that is special about the school.