Francesco Tonelli’s life has always revolved around food. As both a skilled chef and photographer, Francesco is completely hands-on in his entire process. He does everything from cooking the dish, to plating it, to taking the photo and editing it – all of which enable him to control each fine detail. Take a moment with us as we discover his process.
Beginning his career as a chef in Northern Italy, Francesco’s passion drove him forward to teach at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
From there, he soon discovered his talent for creating and capturing the beauty and essence of a dish, and now creates some of the most stunning images that simply take your breath away.
How long were you at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA)? Do you miss it?
Eight years, from 1997 to 2005. I do very much miss my students and the opportunity to explore the critical importance of each small detail when cooking food with them.
What is your fondest memory from that time?
The daily interaction with the diverse population of students and faculty from so many different backgrounds and cultures.
What are some of the most memorable projects you’ve worked on?
Truly too many to list. It has been a pretty incredible decade. I am feeling so blessed to have worked with some of the world’s most talented chefs, as well as world-class food manufacturers, art directors, designers, producers and assistants. To name a few:
Shooting ILNY cookbook with chef Daniel Humm and his team was a truly memorable experience. It allowed us to travel to so many parts of New York State and New Jersey, meet incredible farmers, fishermen, food artisans and discover truly amazing foods and stories.
Traveling to the Austrian Alps to shoot a boutique 5 star luxury resort immersed in immaculate nature. My team and I were treated with the most outstanding hospitality. We had the privilege to enjoy daily menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner, designed specifically for us to experience authentic Austrian traditional and modern cuisines. It was an unforgettable experience.
We could also go on about Jean-Georges’ many amazing restaurant concepts, or the brand new luxury hotel oasis in the center of Rome near Piazza San Pietro, or shooting the family recipes of Stanley Tucci while having the opportunity to meet him and eat a truly delicious pizza he prepared himself in his wood fired oven, and more…
So how exactly do you capture the breathtaking images that you do?
I just prepare each dish with great care and attention to detail, using the best possible ingredients and executing each seasoning and cooking technique as if I was going to eat it myself. And I often end up doing just that.
What do you think makes your work unique?
Not really sure. Honestly, I don’t spend much time comparing my work to other photographers’ work. I just do what comes natural to me and enjoy the process.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Not to eat the food before the shot is taken. Seriously…probably scheduling and estimating new jobs. It’s always difficult to envision in advance what’s needed, how long it is going to take and how much it is going to cost. It is the less artistic and less exciting part of the job, but unfortunately critically important and time consuming.
Are you still very-hands on in the composition of what you’re photographing?
Absolutely. I am directly involved in every single aspect, from estimating to scheduling, sourcing, prepping, cooking, styling, lighting, photographing, and post production. Each part is essential to carrying a vision and delivering quality results.
You have the rare combination of being both an amazing chef & photographer. What are your insight on the culinary world and where it’s headed today?
In the commercial world, I noticed a welcomed and much needed trend by food manufacturers of all sizes to offer more products that are not only convenient and tasty but also good for you. Food prepared more simply, with fewer and better quality ingredients.
In restaurants, I noticed an increasing trend in working with simple and traditional preparations executed with care, quality ingredients, and sound cooking techniques. Most of my best food memories are just about those simple yet incredible flavors, difficult to replicate. And as easy as it sounds, it is one of the most difficult things to accomplish. It is a way of cooking and thinking about food that can apply to all levels of cuisines.
For example, I recently enjoyed a simple, but impeccable pasta dish in a fine dining restaurant in NYC, a perfect traditional Italian pizza (as good as some of the very best I had in Italy) offered in a small, lovely, inexpensive restaurant in New Jersey. And a slice of crispy, juicy, melt-in-your-mouth Porchetta from a street cart stand. Not all in the same meal, of course.
What other photographers do you admire?
So many. The most significant that come to mind are Renato and Riccardo Marcialis – two extremely talented brothers in Milano, my home town, who each independently created some of the most beautiful and inspiring food photographs I have ever seen.
I started admiring their work in the 1980s when I was a chef and had no idea I would one day become a photographer. To this day, their work still looks inspiring and contemporary to me.
Best tips for taking a great photo?
Know your subject. Love your subject. Allow your subject to inspire you, rather than impose your pre-conceptual thoughts on it.
Do you still cook?
More than ever. I cook every single day. For me, my girlfriend, my clients, and any of my friends who come to spend time with me at my home and studio.
5 things you can’t live without?
Love, family, olive oil, a glass of good wine with my meal, and click magnetic glasses.
Anything exciting you’re working on right now?
Just about to complete the Eleven Madison Park Cookbook #2. It took us almost 2 years, and we are about to shoot the last few creations. Should be a pretty cool book.
What’s next for you?
I am planning to move into a new wonderful studio space. Stay tuned for news and updates on my blog!