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

Francesco Tonelli in his photo studio in New Jersey | Photo: Francesco Tonelli


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.

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


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.

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


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.’

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


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.

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


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!’

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



Creative Director + Creative Strategist at happicamp.com British by birth, American by choice, opinions my own.

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James Bareham

Creative Director + Creative Strategist at happicamp.com British by birth, American by choice, opinions my own.