How do you teach a former chef a new trick? You give him a camera. And that’s how high-end food photographer Francesco Tonelli got his start.
After many years of working in kitchens and hotels across Europe, Tonelli became a professor of culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America, and prominent R&D chef and food stylist for La Cucina Italiana in Milan. This delicious career consists of developing and styling hundreds of dishes for the magazine.
We sat down with Tonelli to learn more about the incredible world of food photography and how he has created such a renowned name for himself both in the kitchen and behind the camera with high-profile clients from Michelin-starred chefs to giant culinary brands.
I was born and raised in Italy, and I started my career as a chef working for more than 20 years in restaurants and hotels in Italy, France and Switzerland.
ICONIC LIFE: How did you get your start as a photographer?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: Totally by chance! I was born and raised in Italy, and I started my career as a chef working for more than 20 years in restaurants and hotels in Italy, France and Switzerland. During this time, I also consulted for the Italian culinary magazine “La Cucina Italiana,” conceiving and developing new recipes to publish each month. I worked alongside some of the best high-end Italian food photographers, styling the dishes I developed for publication.
In 1997, I decided to have an adventure overseas and accepted a position as a faculty member at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Soon, I decided to share some of the photographs of my dishes with one of the high-end food photographers back in Italy with whom I had remained friends. His reply was less than flattering. He pretty much told me that the food was nice-looking, but the photos were horrible, and he offered to help me capture better images by sending a hand-drawn sketch of a small basic set with instructions to build a light source using parchment paper, a table lamp and a wine carton. It was a revelation!
Now that I somehow started controlling the light source, my images looked completely different and so much better.
As a chef, having this sort of independence and control over the development, preparation, styling, photographing and post-production of the photographs of my food provided me with both pleasure and confidence to shoot more and more, learn and improve.
One day I was asked to develop 12 recipes for Coca-Cola using 12 of their different beverages. I styled and shoot the final result. It was so well received that Coca-Cola decided to publish them with the recipes and paid me. I was beyond proud, and, for the first time, it occurred to me that I could develop this hobby into a new career in 2003 as a high-end food photographer.
I slowly started replacing my wine carton with a professional soft box, my sub-megapixel camera with a 3MP one, and then eventually a 14MP professional camera. By 2005, I was ready (at least in my mind…) to go solo. I resigned my full-time faculty position and ventured into the unknown but exciting world of freelance food photography. Little did I know it would be a long and difficult journey…
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: WE’VE ALL GOT PHONES, BUT EVER JUST WANT THE BEST CAMERA?
ICONIC LIFE: Who have you shot with that we might know?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: My first big break in editorial photography came from The New York Times. I shot many of their Dining Session covers and the very first cookbook for Eleven Madison Park. This extraordinary collaboration created a friendship with Chef Daniel Humm.
The experience and exposures of The New York Times and EMP books allowed me to become more visible to photography agents and commercial clients. I was approached by cake-factory, a boutique photographer rep, who took me on and introduced me to the world of commercial food photography. My first high-end food photography commercial clients were KRAFT, Planters and General Mills.
Eventually, things started picking up, and I was fortunate to develop relationships with more amazing clients such as Chobani, KIND, Godiva, Danone, Daisy, Mars, PepsiCo, Knorr, WW, Florida Orange, Pure Leaf, Chipotle, Swanson, Nestlé, Starbucks, Smucker’s, Breyers and Unilever.
ICONIC LIFE: What do you love about your work?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: That I get to eat a lot of delicious food right after I shoot it. Seriously, I enjoy having control of the whole process from conception, to shopping, preparing, cooking, styling, lighting, photographing and post-processing. I also get to meet incredibly talented designers and creative people from many design and advertising agencies, as well as clients who devoted their lives to developing a food product.
ICONIC LIFE: What is your philosophy?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: I eat therefore I am. Keeping it simple. Allowing the food to be what it wants to be. Capturing and enhancing its natural beauty and appetite appeal without forcing it.
ICONIC LIFE: What’s your process?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: Connect with the client to understand their food and their goals. Think, test, try and try again. When ready, shoot the food as quickly as possible to capture its freshness and fragrance and avoid it sitting on set any longer than necessary. Not much different from a good carpenter. Measure twice, cut once.
It is very rewarding to me when my clients realize they can trust that I will deliver what they need on time, without cutting corners and without making excuses.
ICONIC LIFE: How do you know you have a good shot?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: Everyone on set starts going “ooooohhh.” When the food on the screen looks better than it did in my mind.
ICONIC LIFE: What do you most love about high-end food photography?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: I love being able to develop long-lasting, trusting relationships with my clients. It is very rewarding to me when my clients realize they can trust that I will deliver what they need on time, without cutting corners and without making excuses. It makes working together more relaxed, more pleasant and more creative. I love being able to have full control of my schedule, my workflow and the final quality of the product I deliver.
ICONIC LIFE: What inspires you?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: Finding ways to translate food memories and flavors into an image.
ICONIC LIFE: What are your favorite memories/shoots?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: Chobani deciding to bring its design team along for the experience.
Ever since I started shooting commercial high-end food photography, I always made sure everyone was greeted with a varied, healthy and indulgent breakfast, every day different and featuring a homemade egg dish with the best farm eggs I was able to source, abundant seasonal fruit, homemade granola, homemade jams, croissants, bread, homemade pastries, freshly squeezed juices, etc.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: SUMMER IN ITALY: POSITANO
And for lunch, my team and I always prepare a home-cooked meal to take the time to break bread together, socializing and enjoying necessary quality time, allowing us to rest, recharge, and get ready for a productive and creative rest of our shoot day.
A few years ago when I was shooting extensively for Chobani, the leaders of the client team decided to invite their entire design team to attend the shoot and observe the creative process.
When it was time for lunch, joined multiple tables to have this really beautiful meal. There were more than 20 people, passing around bread and family-style food platters, pouring San Pellegrino and wine, discussing everything from personal life to brainstorming ideas for the rest of the shoot. It was one of those moments when I felt particularly proud and fortunate to be able to work with such a beautiful group of talented, creative people and food enthusiasts. At the end of the day, we all enjoyed a Negroni together before everyone headed home.
ICONIC LIFE: What does it take to be at the top of your game?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: Dedication, integrity, discipline, attention to detail, love and passion for everything involved (food, technology, entire workflow). And luck!
ICONIC LIFE: Can you share some stories about some of your celebrity clients?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: One of the significant turning points of my photographic career was when I met Daniel Humm, by chance, during an editorial shoot I was doing for Art Culinaire in 2008. He was the executive chef of Eleven Madison Park in New York City, but not nearly as famous as he is now. This was prior to the Eleven Madison Park Cookbook (EMP) receiving its first 4 stars from The New York Times and 3 Michelin Stars. Daniel and I immediately clicked.
In 2010, Daniel reached out again for high-end food photography. His career was starting to take off, and he was able to get a book deal to create the Eleven Madison Park Cookbook. We discussed how important it was for them to create something unique and amazing.
Daniel was involved in plating every single dish. If something was not exactly looking the way we wanted, he sent it back and started from scratch, sometimes multiple times, over and over, until we both felt it was right. I had never seen such dedication and attention to detail in a restaurant shoot. Daniel noticed how much I cared.
After the first few shoots, we realized that this project was a groundbreaking, high-end food photography opportunity for both of us and how much this book meant to us.
We immediately agreed that, no matter how much we had budgeted, we would disregard it and dedicate ourselves to shooting as much as necessary until we had all we needed at the level of quality we wanted. No cutting corners.
Daniel and his team also made sure that, every single day, we all sat down to a delicious family meal cooked by an EMP sous chef. Plus, he made sure every dish we shot was prepared and seasoned exactly so that I could taste it after the shot was captured. Those were long, intense, beautiful and truly memorable days.
I had to sublet a room in New York City to sleep at night. Daniel, knowing this challenge, made sure that every night after the shoot, I would sit at a table at the EMP bar and enjoy a 3- Michelin-Star dinner—truly a dream, especially for a former chef and food lover like myself. This first EMP book and the deep friendship between Daniel and me will always have a special place in my heart.
ICONIC LIFE: What is life like for you outside photography?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: Inside and outside photography, the most important has been my love life with Mitty. We live and work together every day for seven years, and she keeps me young and happy. She supports from hospitality to marketing, from setting up breakfast to coming up with most of the puns we post on Instagram.
We take walks and hikes before or after work. We also grow a variety of vegetables, herbs and salads on our terrace. In addition to its being a relaxing hobby, it provides us with delicious homegrown food to eat and, occasionally, with great looking subjects for our photographs.
ICONIC LIFE: What’s next for you?
FRANCESCO TONELLI: My hope is to continue to do what I am doing for as long as I am able to. There is a lot of pressure and hard work involved in commercial food photography, but, at the same time, for us, it is such an enjoyable and rewarding lifestyle that we love and often runs on a fine line between work and fun, between client and friends.