The Art of Food Photography

Discover the Delicious Secrets of Chef-Photographer Francesco Tonelli

By Robin Jay

“This was an exploratory shoot to glorify the PBJ and its indulgence. I captured it frame by frame as I was building it.” – Francesco Tonelli

One might say the tapestry of Francesco Tonelli’s career as a chef-photographer is woven with threads of food-related memories spun from a vivid childhood in Milan, Italy, and then his culinary journeys through Europe and North America.

“My Mom cooked delicious food from scratch every single day. When I came home from school, she was waiting for me with food ready, just for me. Then at night, when my Dad and siblings came home, we all had dinner together,” Tonelli reminisced. “We knew the menu by scent. The house always had these beautiful aromas of slow simmering sauces or stews, or broths or roasts. The weekend even more so. My Mom was making handmade gnocchi or hand rolled pasta (no machine, just a long wood rolling pin), lasagnas, ravioli, tortelli.

“On Saturday morning, we used to go to the open food market that came to town once a week and strolled through the vendors buying fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, fresh fish, poultry, preserved tuna or anchovies, freshly baked bread and delicious small pastries or local ice cream. Every single weekend was a food feast.”

Tonelli said some of his best memories also came from visiting his uncle in the Marche region, a five-hour drive south of Milan in Central Italy right on the hills overlooking the Adriatic Sea. “That’s where my mother grew up working in the family farm and growing pretty much everything from scratch. From wheat to flour, from olive trees to olive oil, cows to work the fields and to milk for milk, from which they made butter and cheese. All sorts of herd animals, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, plus a pig that they slaughtered once a year to make all sorts of sausages, salami, prosciutto and more. Oh – and grapes to make their own wine and vinegar!”

Tonelli continued, “Without those ingredients, even my mother could not replicate such special flavors, only five hours north, I remember egg yolks so deep orange that the pasta looked like it was made with saffron. The fresh sausage my uncle made was so incredibly good and simple I used to eat it raw on a slice of the famous but unfortunately not so popular here in the USA ‘Pane Toscano’ – a loaf of rustic bread with almost no salt, which enhances the flavor of delicacies such as salami, prosciutto or even just olive oil.

“These memories are what I treasure the most today and feel so fortunate I had the opportunity to experience.”

How Tonelli’s Culinary Vocation Interest Sprouted 
But that is not what inspired Tonelli to pursue a career in culinary arts. Somehow, he said, those memories planted a seed that took much longer to grow.

“What made me decide to become a chef was actually the experience I had at 13 years old, working in the restaurant kitchen where my older brother was the chef. I became infatuated by the world of chefs, uniforms, professional kitchens and the adrenaline that goes into restaurant prep and service times,” Tonelli explained.

In 1979, Tonelli enrolled in a five-year program in the Hotel School in Milan. He worked in a beautiful restaurant near Piazza Duomo and spent spring and winter breaks as an apprentice in resorts atop the Italian Alps and along the Italian Riviera. During summer breaks, Tonelli shadowed his brother at a restaurant in Montreal, Canada, practicing the French he studied at school. He fashioned pastries in the Swiss Alps, worked a stint in Paris and perfected high-end cuisines at a boutique hotel in central Italy.

Enter the Technology Bug 
By 1990, the multitalented chef had developed a love for computers, and his creativity motivated a side step from restaurant and hotel kitchens to consulting for the premier Italian Culinary Magazine “La Cucina Italiana.” For six years, Tonelli developed and styled recipes for monthly publishing. All the while, he opened two restaurants inside prestigious private clubs in Milan. For years, he worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day. “I was ready for a change,” he said. When the opportunity came along in 1997, he snatched it – moving to New York to teach at the Culinary Institute of America. And in the Big Apple, he launched a new hobby: photography.

“I had never taken a picture in my life, nor had any desire to despite working alongside a great food photographer for many years at La Cucina Italiana,” Tonelli confessed. “But they were working with film, Polaroids, light testers and large format cameras. It made the whole thing look so mysterious and complicated. Fortunately, 1998 is the year that the first consumer digital camera became available, and when I felt the need to document my dishes, mise-en-place and visual lesson plans for my students, I decided to buy one.”

The immediate feedback and the ability to download the digital files directly to his computer, manipulate the images independently, and lay them right inside his lesson plans captured his interest. “I soon became obsessed and started capturing even the food I was eating at home, figuring out ways to improve the quality of the images and the light,” he said.

The CIA occasionally provided Tonelli with photo assignments. He brainstormed ideas and developed concepts and recipes for large food corporations that tapped the school as a resource. The hobby turned into a side job, an investment in better cameras, lighting, gear, and the maestro read book after book about photography and Photoshop. “In 2005, after eight years teaching at the CIA, I decided to venture into the world of freelance commercial food photographers. It has been quite a journey.”

The Magic of Photographing Food 
With such talent in both the taste and preparation of foods, as well as its visual beauty, how does the chef-photographer describe the difference between foods he loves to cook and eat versus those he finds most compelling to photograph?

“I am not sure there is a difference,” Tonelli replied. “I love to photograph the food that I cook. I prepare food for a shoot pretty much as if I was going to eat it. And often that’s exactly what I do after the shoot is over.”

What Does He Find Most Challenging to Photograph?  
“Pasta,” Tonelli said. “The challenge with pasta is that its prime look is very volatile. When pasta is hot, as it should be eaten, the sauce, which generally emulsifies around each piece of pasta, tends to either dry out or slowly fall toward the bottom of the plate. So, unless you capture it immediately, just as it falls in the plate or in the pan, you lose a critical part of its appetite appeal. That’s often not possible to do, especially if you are shooting for a specific campaign and need to make sure the pasta lays in the plate in a particular way. So, in order to buy some time to adjust the pasta in its vessel, I found it useful to work with pasta that is warm but not hot.

“Same goes for the sauce. Since the sauce tends to thicken as it cools down, the key is to be able to adjust its texture so that it looks at the right consistency even though it is not hot. Often it is as simple as adding a bit of liquid as it cools down. There is no magic formula. Just trial and error. It helps a lot to know what the proper finished dish should look like. The rest is a bit like drawing and painting.

Smoke & Mirrors 
“Unless I am looking to capture steam or smoke, I rarely shoot food hot. But I almost always shoot real food. Really cooked, really seasoned. The rare exceptions are, for example, some ice creams that require a unique extrusion or shape or other specific detail that would be impossible to work with the real thing. Or sometimes I use fake ice in a drink. In some shots, I often capture different parts or moments or lighting in separate shots that I then assemble in Photoshop. Every shoot and ingredients are different and might require different techniques. Sometimes it is about freezing the motion and using high speed strobes. Some other times the opposite.

“In the case of the hamburger [as shown on the cover of this issue of International Opulence], every component in this particular shot has been shot separately and then combined in postproduction. Some elements have been captured free falling, such as the cheese, the sauces, the bacon and the onions, for example. Some others were held in position standing on a glass plate such as the meat or pierced by a fork like the top bun. There are not really as many tricks as one would think.”

Something New to the Industry Table 
Ever since Tonelli started doing commercial shoots, he’s made it a point to do something very unconventional in the food photography industry. “I offer my clients and my crew home cooked food for breakfast and lunch,” he said. “Eating well and good quality food is very important to me, as well as taking a proper break for lunch in the middle of a shoot. This practice – which was highly discouraged by virtually anyone in the business at the beginning of my career – has been incredibly well received. Striking a balance between work and well-being is essential, especially when it comes to creativity and all the attention to detail necessary in a commercial shoot.”

How does Tonelli react when asked how he feels about being referred to as the “da Vinci” of food photography?

“Blushing…” Tonelli said, insisting he’s no Leonardo. “I absolutely love food and capturing its appetite appeal and most subtle details. I don’t take short cuts. I go out of my way to find the right ingredients, prepare the food properly, show up early, test, prepare, do my best to under promise and over deliver. A good photograph, a good preparation doesn’t come easy. There is a lot of not-so-glamorous work behind it. A lot of trial and error, experimentation, failures. Ultimately, hard work, passion and an ongoing open mind to learning are what help me produce new, unique and hopefully interesting work that defines us.”

The Art of Food Photography