Magazine Article


Recipe For Success

Francesco Tonelli Serves Up Images to Whet Any Appetite

Would-be chefs and restaurateurs run this Italian restaurant at Hyde Park's (New York) prestigious culinary school, where the 'wonderful' seasonal cuisine is served in a 'beautiful,' 'Tuscan-like setting' that includes an open kitchen; the staff is 'friendly' and 'conscientious,' too."

That's how the Zagat Survey described Caterina De' Medici, a restaurant once run by chef and now photographer Francesco Tonelli.

Tonelli, 25 years a chef, grew up in Milan, Italy. Aside from cooking delicious dishes, he served as the research and development chef and food stylist for La Cucina Italiana magazine. In those days, he cooked and arranged the food, but had professional photographers shoot his savory specialties.

Turning Point

In 1997, Tonelli headed for the U.S. to become a teacher at The Culinary Institute of America. With his assignment to Caterina De' Medici, an open-to-the-public restaurant located on the school's campus, Tonelli decided to take up photography to show his students how finished dishes would look.

"I loved taking pictures and manipulating them," he says, "so I decided to buy professional equipment." Although a pro for less than two years, you wouldn't know it by looking at the pictures showcased in this article.

Take a look at the mouth-watering sorbet and fruit image (above), for example. Photographing sorbet in a pristine state before any melting occurs is quite a task. Coca-Cola approached The Culinary Institute in an effort to hire a food photographer, and Tonelli was subcontracted. He created this tasty plate using Coca-Cola's Minute Maid juice. "They also asked me to take images of appetizers next to their soda," he says. "The entire project was photographed using a Nikon Coolpix 995. All recipes from the project are on Coca-Cola's website."

The image of ravioli (above) shows the Italian dish at its finest. "The plan was to have the food backlit," he recalls. "I tried to get as close to the food as possible. I used the Nikon Coolpix 995 to get this image."

The camera was also put to the test when Tonelli received his first professional job in 2003 from Guinness Bass Import Company. They asked him to capture images of fish and chips, steak, etc., without a glass of beer, for the brewer to use as a manual for bar owners on how to sell their food.

"I constructed my set using an upside-down storage bin topped with a large wood cutting board," he says. "My lighting consisted of a homemade softbox made from a cardboard box that housed a desk lamp, with parchment paper taped across its open side."

Tonelli's recipe for success: he only photographs real ingredients and real preparations, which allows the food's best qualities to shine through the camera.

Lighting is a crucial ingredient in all his images. He uses the Lowel DP Light 1000W tungsten with a Photoflex SilverDome; LTM Pepper 300W tungsten; and the Lowel Pro-Light 250W, along with an array of scrims, snoots, and barndoors.

"I prepare the lighting and set using a sample of the food preparation," he says. "Then when the lighting is where I want it, I cook and make the final preparation." As a rule, he has more than one portion available, so if necessary, he can set up a new portion and resume shooting.

"All of the food is prepared, seasoned, and often tested for accuracy of the recipe in conjunction with a shoot," continues Tonelli. "Then, when I've finished shooting, the food, if at all possible, is tasted and/or consumed. Respect for food as a critical resource is one of my primary objectives."

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