Francesco Tonelli: Chef to Photographer

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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.

Francesco Tonelli

Greek yogurt close up for Chobani. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Cooked clams. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Steamed asparagus tips with lardo, boiled egg, and quinoa for I Love New York cookbook by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park and NoMad. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Pea soup with ham hocks for I Love New York by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park and NoMad. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Raw and cooked beef ribeye (Delmonico Steak) for I Love New York cookbook by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park and NoMad. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Portrait of Robin Ostfeld and Lou Johns holding cabbage at Blue Heron Farm for I Love New York by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park and NoMad. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Orange and yellow baby carrots, baby corn, and baby radishes with green purèe, grains, parsley, and pea shoots by chef Christoph Zangeri of The Hotel Tannenhof in St. Anton, Austria. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Hillside view of mountains near The Hotel Tannenhof in St. Anton, Austria. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Quail leg with rhubarb baton over parsley coulis and purèe with roasted and shaved artichokes, star anise, and mini white and purple flowers by chef Christoph Zangeri of The Hotel Tannenhof in St. Anton, Austria. © Francesco Tonelli

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…

Francesco Tonelli

Asparagus with pickled spring onions and marcona almonds by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten of ABC Cocina, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Hamachi sashimi, avocado, yuzu, and radish by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and chef Gregory Brainin of restaurant Jean-Georges, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Patatas bravas with a spicy tangy sauce and rosemary aioli by chef Jean-Georges Vongericthen of ABC Cocina, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Abstract composition of raw, sliced golden beets. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Cross section view of head of a napa cabbage. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Dark chocolate bars from Mast Brothers in Brooklyn, NY. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Sea urchin mousse with green apple by chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Oyster topped with crème fraîche, oyster glaze, caviar, arugasabi blooms, and sea salt by chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Garden pea soup with buttermilk, prosciutto, and mint by chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Cheesecake with raspberry vinegar snow, black raspberries, golden raspberries, red raspberries, gooseberries, red currants, white currants, blueberries, and fraise de bois (wild strawberries) with ice cream by chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Roasted royal trumpet mushrooms, roasted hen of the woods mushrooms, pickled chanterelle mushrooms, pickled enoki mushrooms, glazed shitake mushrooms, glazed oyster mushrooms, pine nut purée, cooked barley, teff chip, nasturtium, purslane, and fried quail egg with mushroom sauce by chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Cucumber salad with sliced, diced, and charred cucumbers, cucumber wedges, cucamelon, cucumber blossoms, fennel flowers, pickled mustard seeds, and borage flowers by chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Tomato lobster disc with croutons, chervil, chive tips, lemon gel, bonito mayonnaise, tomato flowers, fennel flowers, and basil by chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Containers of ice cream with spoonfuls of quenelles at Eleven Madison Park, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Green gooseneck squash filled with yellow squash purée, squash blossom and mint flowers by chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

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.

Francesco Tonelli

Green cavatelli pasta and sliced clams tossed in a garlic clam broth and finished with parsley and red pepper flakes by chef Daniel Humm of NoMad, NYC. © Francesco Tonelli

5 things you can’t live without?
Love, family, olive oil, a glass of good wine with my meal, and click magnetic glasses.

Francesco Tonelli

Oven roasted red snapper in roasting pan. © Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli

Seared bone-in bison ribeye steak on a cast iron flat griddle, garnished with cooked thyme and butter. © Francesco Tonelli

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!

Francesco Tonelli

Lamb loin with braised lamb neck, kale purèe, chanterelle mushrooms, pickled mustard seeds, royal trumpet mushroom, roasted Japanese eggplant, sea beans, onion flowers, and lamb jus by chef Brandon Kida of Clement Restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel. © Francesco Tonelli