We had a chance to peek into Francesco Tonelli‘s studio and behind the scenes of some of his food photography shoots. His unique way of working with his clients and great experience in the world of food makes him one of the most unique and professional food photographers in the business. In his studio, he creates a food atmosphere as never experienced before. Read more about Francesco and his work below.
Production Paradise: How did you develop your passion for food?
Francesco: I grew up in a family where food was very important and often the focal point. It was enjoyed, celebrated and prepared from scratch every single day. My mother grew up in a farm in central Italy and together with her parents and siblings, cultivated vegetables, fruit trees, wheat to make flour, olives to cure or press for oil, grapes to eat and make wine with, raised animals, made cheese with their milk, salumi with their meat and much more. Her relationship with food was so intimate and deeply rooted that even after she married my father and moved to a city life she transmitted her love, knowledge, and passion for food and ingredients to me and my siblings by preparing the most delicious home cooked meals every single day. My family almost never went out to eat in a restaurant. Weekends, holidays, birthdays have always been highlighted by my mother’s cuisine and her delicious preparations.
There are so many fond memories of the delicious aroma of a sauce, a ragu’, a broth, a braise slowly simmering from early morning, anticipating to all of us what the lunch or dinner to come.
The kitchen was always the focal point of the house, a warm and comfortable space, full of life and aromas where my mother could be found preparing our meals.
Early on as a child, I did not even realize how fortunate I was and the effect that all these simple and delicious food preparations were having on me. It is mostly as a young adult, shortly after graduating from culinary school and working in my first restaurants that I realize how much influence my mother had on my palate and my knowledge and appreciation for food and how much more I could learn from her.
Production Paradise: It appears you came a long way before starting as a photographer. Could you take us through your journey from chef to a photographer?
Francesco: My older brother became a chef when I was still in elementary school. The idea of working together in making great food was a strong motivation so when my time came to choose a professional path I decided to enroll in culinary school. At 14 years old I started working in the restaurant where my brother was the head chef for the entire summer break from culinary school. Eventually, my career path took me to cook in many more kitchens across Italy, Switzerland, and France for almost 20 years. In 1997 I decided to move to the USA to teach in one of the most prestigious cooking schools The Culinary Institue of America.
It’s interesting to note that during my time back in Italy, I worked for nearly 10 years alongside food photographers as part of my R&D consulting for Italy’s premier cooking magazine La Cucina Italiana, but it never occurred to me that I could possibly be taking the pictures myself. Probably the reason is that at that time photography was based exclusively on film and these photographers were working with large format cameras and strobe lights, which although to me was such a mysterious, technical and fascinating process it did not necessarily pique my interest to do it myself.
It was only while working at the Culinary Institute of America that I discovered my hidden passion for photography thanks to the advent of digital. As soon as I started teaching I felt the need to illustrate my lesson plans and student handouts with images. I looked to buy my first camera at the time when the very first consumer digital cameras were becoming available. I purchased an Olympus 5-500L (less than 1 Megapixel!) and thanks to the immediate feedback of the LCD as well as the ability to download the images to my Mac (which I have always been fond of and fairly proficient with) the world of photography revealed itself to me and immediately became my new hobby and eventually with luck and hard work, my new career.
After eight years teaching full time while photographing personal and some paid projects on the side, I decided to make a major change and take a huge chance by resigning from my faculty position to devote myself full time to photography. It was on my 40th birthday.
Production Paradise: Your portfolio shows a big variety of work from packaging and advertising of renowned brands to food magazines, cookbooks and restaurants. What type of projects are your favourite?
Francesco: I honestly don’t have a favorite type of project. I consider it a plus in my profession to be able to change from project to project and embrace the different circumstances and challenges that each type of shoot brings. For example, I do most of my shoots from my own studio and I love the convenience of working in my own environment with all my gear and tools and space, which allows me to focus completely on the creative process. But occasionally I love the challenge of packing my gear and go shoot on location, embracing both the challenges and opportunities that this brings, such as unique environments, scenarios, and backgrounds.
Production Paradise: You are also a food stylist. Do you usually end up doing both: styling and photography for a particular project or do you get some help?
Francesco: Doing both the styling and the photography allows me to have total control over so many details of the image and it is what makes my work and style look the way it does. I believe that this has been the main reason that enabled me to become successful as a food photographer among so many other talented photographers.
I truly enjoy both styling and photographing and in most of my shoots, it is the most efficient and effective way to achieve the goals. Normally doing both allows me to be more accurate, and able to pay attention to details so I can see and anticipate both cause and effect instead of just one or the other and more efficient. Of course, I surround myself with a great team of assistants that help me manage the studio and kitchen needs and ensure that the shoot proceeds seamlessly and efficiently.
There are some projects however where I choose to partner with a food stylist possessing a very specific expertise, such is the case of ice cream or chocolate for example. Ultimately every photo shoot has its own specific needs and set of challenges. It is critical to be aware of the best approach to ensure quality and efficiency even if that, sometimes, implies that I am not doing my own styling as I normally do.
Production Paradise: You also offer a studio for photography shoots. Tell us more about the facilities and services it offers.
Francesco: This new studio is the coronation of my dreams and wishes over the past 13 years as a food photographer. It is incredible how much more comfortable and efficient it is to be able to work from your own fully equipped and custom design space. Located right off the George Washington Bridge it can be reached from Manhattan in only 15 minutes by car or ferry.
The 4,250 four-story building features:
1st floor: Street level entrance for deliveries + storage room with 3 freezers and 2 refrigerators + Prop Room with a great selection of plates, glasses, silverware, napkins, trays, and surfaces.
2nd floor: Full digital set + client area + double shoot-in kitchen including 3 ovens, 2 36” gas ranges, 2 refrigerators, 2 freezers, 1 wine cooler, 2 sinks and 2 dishwashers.
3rd floor: Post-production office, client room
4th floor: Production Kitchen with 36” gas range and oven, refrigerator and freezer, dining room and large terrace overlooking NYC.
Ever since my first commercial shoot, about 13 years ago, I have made it a point to extend hospitality to all my clients and team. My background in food, not just as a chef but running a restaurant combined with my Italian upbringing, naturally compels me to value hospitality, sharing food and sitting down for a meal. Food creates such a friendly positive dynamic with people in the studio. Every shooting day we greet everyone with home-made breakfast spread including home-made granola, jams, baked goods, eggs, fresh fruit, freshly squeezed juices, coffee, and cappuccinos to start the day.
In midday, we make it a point to break for about 30 minutes so all of us can sit around a multi-course lunch based on simple seasonal preparations with thoughtful consideration of everyone’s dietary restrictions and food preferences.
This is one of the things I am most proud of and I believe has been most well received by all of my clients. It allows us to connect, regroup and recharge in front of good food and wine, making the day not only more pleasant for everyone but also more productive.
Production Paradise: Can you tell us more about your team?
Francesco: The most important member of my team and the one I am the proudest of, is my life partner who, after getting to know me better than anyone for the past several years, has decided to join me full time as my studio manager and support me 24/7 in this journey to uphold what we both enjoy and believe in both in term of creativity and hospitality. Her perspective, input, and constant support are instrumental to keep me balanced, inspired and happy. I also have an eclectic pool of creative people with strong backgrounds in either photography or restaurant kitchens or food styling who assist and support me on photo shoots. Some have known me and worked with me for many years. They understand the way I work and provide essential support and input.
Production Paradise: What are your plans for the further future?
Francesco: Retire. Most likely in Italy where I could drive around all regions taking pictures of the many amazing food artisans and traditional preparations. Maybe turn it into a book someday.
Production Paradise: Could you share some feedback about Production Paradise?
Francesco: I feel that Production Paradise provides me with an opportunity to showcase my work to companies around the world. Recently I had a chance to visit their headquarters in Barcelona and was impressed by their structure, vision and the personal dedication they put in what they do. It was particularly delightful to meet Catherine, General Manager who shared valuable insights and tools on marketing strategies.
Special thanks to Francesco Tonelli for taking the time to share their story with us and hope you enjoyed reading the story. For more images visit Francesco’s website or his profile page on Production Paradise. We wish Francesco all the best in the future.