Heirloom beets prepared by Chef Brandon Kida at Clement Restaurant, the Peninsula hotel. Photo: ©Francesco Tonelli

Francesco Tonelli: From Master Chef to Photographer

One man’s passionate love of cooking took him from a small restaurant kitchen in Northern Italy to a photo studio overlooking Manhattan

Describing Francesco Tonelli as a food photographer is rather like saying Pavarotti was a singer: both statements are perfectly true, but don’t come close to expressing the depth of their talent, nor do they do justice to just how hard they worked at it.

Like Pavarotti, Francesco is from Northern Italy. From early childhood he had a deep passion for cooking and, by the time he was 14, he was already working in the kitchen with his brother who was a chef. Over the next 20 years, Francesco developed his culinary skills by cooking in Italy, Switzerland and France. And he didn’t just cook. While in Milan, Francesco ran a couple of restaurants which meant that in addition to his time in the kitchen, he was also responsible for pretty much everything else.

Francesco’s experience led to him to be hired by the La Cucina Italiana magazine to develop recipes. As he remembers, ‘I actually ended up testing them (the recipes) to make sure they worked and then styling them for the photo shoots’. It was a very successful arrangement, and Francesco ended up working alongside food photographers for almost eight years.

Francesco Tonelli in his photo studio in New Jersey. Photo © Francesco Tonelli

WELCOME TO AMERICA

During his teens, Francesco’s two older brothers had both moved abroad: one to the US and one to Canada. Francesco had made numerous summer trips to visit them, frequently working at his brother’s restaurant in Montreal. The trips left their mark, and eventually Francesco packed his bags and left Italy for good.

Francesco explains, ‘I decided to look for an adventure in North America. I conducted several interviews in restaurants, schools and food companies throughout New York, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago and Vancouver.’

But the job he finally accepted was to teach at one of the most prestigious cooking schools in the world: the Culinary Institute of America — the other CIA.

Even for someone as experienced in the kitchen as Francesco, working at the CIA was relentless. ‘When I started teaching at the school, the pace and the nature of the teaching position was pretty demanding.’ The 14-day course had an average class size of 18 students, most of whom had never set foot in a professional kitchen.

Each day, Francesco would teach his class six or seven different dishes, one of each for a different cooking method’ (boiled, braised, sauteed etc). Each day the dishes changed, so the students only got one attempt to make each one. And if that wasn’t enough, every lunchtime ‘we opened the kitchen to feed around 100 people each day’.

Pizza with four cheeses, bell peppers and black olives, ready for delivery. Photo: ©Francesco Tonelli

LESSON PLANS & PHOTOGRAPHY

It soon became clear to Francesco that he was going to have to create far more comprehensive course guides and lesson plans to prepare his students for the frenetic pace of learning. And that’s where photography came in.

‘It occurred to me that it would be useful to have the support of images, which in 1997 was not as common as it is now.’ Francesco decided that he would photograph the finished dishes so the students could see how they were supposed to look.

The problem was he didn't have a camera. ‘I bought this Olympus D-500L — which I remember was less than a megapixel’. The iPhone 6 has an 8-megapixel camera.

With his new digital camera in hand (and set to fully automatic), Francesco began shooting his first food pictures. They were, in his words, ‘horrible’. But he persevered and gradually, over time, what started as just a way to improve his lesson plans became his new hobby.

Francesco had remained in touch with one of the food photographers he had worked with back in Milan. The two had become a good friends. Francesco reached out to tell him that he had bought a camera, and sent him some of his photographs of food. His friend’s reply was along the lines of ‘Wow, the food looks pretty cool. But man, you need to learn how to use the camera!’ So to help Francesco learn, the photographer sent diagrams showing him how to set up the lights, and how to create a simple home-made soft-box out of cardboard.

It was a revelation. At home with his new wife (who was a former student at the CIA), Francesco photographed almost every meal they cooked together. Eventually the CIA began to take notice of Francesco’s new hobby and found an even bigger use for it than just for lesson plans.

Major companies would often approach the CIA and ask the teachers and chefs to consult, or even to help develop new product focused recipes. Francesco’s ability to not only create those recipes, but to also photograph the actual dish made him an ideal candidate for the task. At the CIA’s request, he worked on a number of successful projects for companies such as Coca-Cola and Guinness.

As the years passed, Francesco’s photographic proficiency grew along with his family. Now the father of three young children, the commitment to both teaching at the CIA, and developing and shooting recipes for commercial clients was becoming overwhelming. With a potential offer of even more commercial work for a large, famous corporation, he knew that he had to make a choice. With the loving support of his family, he handed in his notice to the CIA on his 40th birthday in February 2005 and became a full time professional photographer.

Apple Strudel with pine nuts and raisins. Photo: ©Francesco Tonelli

HINDSIGHT IS A WONDERFUL THING

With the benefit of hindsight, Francesco quickly realized that decision was naive. ‘I didn't have a real business plan. I did not know the world of commercial photography. I never worked with a photographer here in the States. I just didn’t know.’

The magnitude of Francesco’s mistake soon become clear. ‘The moment I resigned to focus on the first big project, all the projects went away.’ Difficulty in agreeing the terms and fees with clients meant none of the promised projects ever happened. And without the CIA to feed him any new work, Francesco was dead in the water.

But he wasn't ready to quit. Even though he had very little work, Francesco made himself busy. He subscribed to every photo forum he could find; he wrote to professional photographers for advice; he attended seminars on digital photography; he even hired a portfolio consultant. And he never stopped shooting pictures. Francesco worked for as many restaurants and small magazines in the Hudson Valley as he could — which increased his exposure, if not his bank balance.

As Francesco’s reputation grew, his work eventually caught the attention of both The New York Times and Art Culinaire magazine. He was also taken on by his first rep in New York — which is how he met me.

(Full disclosure: at that time I was one of the founding partners of a photographers’ agent that started in London and opened in New York in 2005. Francesco was one of the first US photographers we took on. I left the company in early January 2007.)

Working with his new rep in New York gave Francesco a valuable lesson in the business of commercial photography; how to structure an estimate, how to calculate fees, and understanding image rights and production expenses. The new relationship started well. He shot a number of very good commercial jobs and gained valuable experience. But the bigger agencies were hard to break into and it became increasingly obvious to Francesco that this rep was not right for him. They parted ways in mid 2007.

For a while afterwards Francesco tried to make it on his own. With his wife Lynn helping with prop styling, he shot new images for his portfolio and the occasional editorial commission. But it soon became clear that he really needed a decent rep to bring in regular, well paying work. And that was far easier said than done.

The trouble was that most of the established reps didn't really understand Francesco’s approach to food photography. They either regarded him as unknown; a risk; or as someone they would have to change.

Yellowfin tuna ribbon avocado, spicy radish & ginger marinade, garnished with sprouts and radish flowers. Prepared by Chef Jean Georges & Chef Gregory Brainin of Jean Georges Restaurant, NYC. Photo: ©Francesco Tonelli

THE UNCONVENTIONAL FOOD PHOTOGRAPHER

Francesco was in many ways an unconventional food photographer. His experience as a chef meant he wanted to style his own food (whereas reps expected him to use established food stylists); he catered his own shoots, preparing exquisite lunches for the client and crew (which reps thought was indulgent and would slow down the shoot); and his style was bright, bold, clean and crisp (which was in stark contrast to the popular muted pastel food photography of the time). In short, Francesco was different, and different is often seen as difficult. But Francesco instinctively knew that if he changed anything that made him different, he would be finished.

Meanwhile, he was burning through all of the family’s income simply trying to stay afloat. ‘I started going through my little savings more and more, and eventually through the years…I zeroed out. I actually asked for a loan. A loan!’

Even when Francesco finally found a rep to take him on, the work still didn't come in. The combined financial stress and emotional toil was adding to the pressure on Francesco’s failing marriage. Eventually, and with a desire to save their friendship and protect their children, Francesco and his wife Lynn decided to separate. He moved out of the family home in the Hudson Valley and into a small working studio space in Jersey City.

Though it was emotionally tough to be apart from his children during the week, once Francesco had moved out, the personal relationship with Lynn immediately improved — and she continues to be a friend and occasional prop stylist to this day.

But his business did not improve. Alone, broke, and seemingly with no hope of real work, Francesco was dead in the water again. And sinking.

Just when he was feeling like he'd hit rock bottom, he got a call to shoot for a magazine called Cooking Light. It was only editorial work, but it was work. The magazine’s art director really liked the pictures Francesco produced — so much so that she then gave him multiple cover shoots. He was suddenly busy. ‘Being alone, I was literally sleeping, waking up, then working until I went to sleep again.’ The work was good for his ego, for his morale, and it also raised his visibility once again. And then he received a momentous phone call.

Four Game Dishes prepared by Daniel Humm, Executive Chef of Eleven Madison Park, New York, NY. Photo: ©Francesco Tonelli

A BEAUTIFUL TRIUMPH

Francesco had first photographed Daniel Humm, the executive chef at Eleven Madison Park in 2007. They had got on well and at the time Daniel had said ‘When I do a book, I want to do it with you.’ Three years and three Michelin stars later, Daniel called Francesco and said ‘We're doing a book!’

With little other work on the table, Francesco threw himself into the project. It became a labour of love for both himself and Daniel. The result was published at the end of November 2011 and was a beautiful triumph.

From that point onwards, things began to change for the better. Whether it was a result of shooting the covers of Cooking Light; or the continuing relationship with The New York Times; or the 200–300 copies of Eleven Madison Park cookbook that Francesco distributed to companies, agencies and magazines, the name of Tonelli was clearly on the upswing.

Indeed, the very qualities that in the past had made clients nervous and Francesco seem so different from other successful food photographers, now became his USP. Agencies who'd previously insisted on Francesco hiring an established food stylist now suggested he style it himself; clients brought their colleagues to his shoots just to enjoy the wonderful catering; famous chefs asked him to shoot their food and their restaurants; and a rep called him out of the blue to tell Francesco how much he loved his work and could he take Francesco on?

Francesco’s persistence actually paid off. He has moved into a large, beautiful studio in Union City and has been working constantly. But despite his improving fortunes, Francesco Tonelli is a man who has most definitely lived and learned, and consequently he takes nothing for granted.

When asked if he feels confident that his career will continue on this great upward trajectory he replies, ‘It’s been great so far, but probably it’s too soon to tell.’

Francesco Tonelli in his studio in New Jersey. Photo: ©Francesco Tonelli

All Photographs ©Francesco Tonelli