Francesco Tonelli Translates Food into Still and Motion

Jacqui Palumbo

Food photographer Francesco Tonelli has a simple mission statement – to capture food at its most pure and appetizing form. He translates flavor, texture and aroma into a medium that in itself, possesses none of those attributes. His images are fresh, meticulous and reveal the beautiful details in food that are often overlooked. Tonelli understands his subject in a way that sets him apart from other food photographers due to his long-standing career as both a food stylist and master chef.

Tonelli started out in Italy as an R&D chef and food stylist for La Cucina Italiana – Milano. He worked alongside film photographers before the dawn of the digital age, but did not pick up his own camera until 1998. Despite his respect for film as a medium, Tonelli has always worked digitally, his first camera an Olympus D-500L that boasted less than one megapixel. At the time he was working as an Associate Professor at The Culinary Institute of America and he used his camera to enhance his lesson plans. His wife, Lynn, was also working at The Culinary Institute of America doing extensive recipe testing, so he began shooting and styling the preparations for the testing process to show how the recipes should look upon completion. What began as a small dip into the digital photography world resulted in a merger of culinary and photography as Tonelli’s career.


Tonelli is often a one-man team, cooking and styling the majority of his photographed dishes himself. He has a couple of regular photo assistants and collaborates with other food stylists from time to time, but the only person he has worked with from the beginning is his wife Lynn. She has functioned in a variety of roles, including photo assistant, kitchen assistant, prop stylist, moral and creative support. Working primarily by himself means being comfortable with all aspects of his work, from preparation and styling to processing and shooting. Tonelli believes it is important for food photographers to truly understand each ingredient or preparation they shoot, and working with the ingredients hands-on is the best way to do so.

Sometimes Tonelli’s creative process begins with a dish that he has already made and he is inspired to shoot it. Other times it begins with an idea for an image and he will create a dish, presentation or cooking process for the purpose of photographing it. Habitually, he starts out with one approach and ends up with the other. “Food will often do exactly what it wants,” Tonelli says. Which is why improvisation and flexibility are important to the process as well. He always experiments and plays with his food, taking risks to chance upon perfection, but also adapting to the nature of the ingredients. “Sometimes we need to be able to react to what is in front of us and enhance it, rather than try to change it or work against it.”


Recently, the photographer has transitioned into motion after purchasing a Canon 5D MKII. He began shooting video when it became increasingly clear that there are moments in the creation of food better suited to be viewed as motion rather than still. “Shooting motion allows other sensory interaction,” he explains. “The drip, the steam, the sizzle, the scoop, the bite.” His first video reel showcases his video work alongside his still photography. Video of the preparation is juxtaposed with stills of the final dish. The quality of the reel is lush and delicate, transforming food into works of art.



Motion presents new challenges, all of which Tonelli has been happy to meet. Still photography allows for more thinking and preparation while video is much faster, requiring more control and quicker reaction time. The rolling camera adds a touch of chaos into the equation, but the end result is an added dimension to his work – a new sensory experience for the viewer. Tonelli has not abandoned still photography by any means, but is now learning what is better described by still and what is better suited for motion.

Tonelli has two upcoming video projects, both with Eleven Madison Park. The first illustrates the precision and beauty of running a four-star restaurant. He describes it as, “from the pristine and meticulous mise en place in both the kitchen and dining room, to the intensity of plating during service, to the orchestration and movement of wait staff during service, to the geometric and artistic beauty of the finished dishes.” The second takes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of his second cookbook with Eleven Madison Park, based on metro New York’s 50 best ingredients. The video will show the connection between farmers, producers and the restaurant and will also showcase the beauty of ingredients in raw form.

To see more of Francesco Tonelli’s work, visit his Web site, and click here to see the full video reel.


PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue

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