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
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
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.

This article was originally written by James Bareham and appeared on Medium on April 4, 2015. You can read the rest of the article on Medium.

The Senses of Good Cooking

You may think you have five, but the sixth is most important.

Here’s a silly sounding but really valuable cooking tip: When you’re roasting nuts in the oven, keep one nut out on your cutting board, and you’ll never burn them; while you’re doing all your other work, you will continually want to wipe that nut off your board, only to remember why it’s there. That’s one way your valuable sense of sight helps you out; if you smell your roasting nuts, it’s probably because they’ve gone too far.

We cook with our senses, and we have six of them, all of them critical, the sixth most of all.

For the cook, one might think that taste is the most important sense. It is indeed a common mantra among chefs: “Always be tasting.” But it’s not just tasting to taste, but rather to evaluate what you’re tasting. Is there enough salt so that it tastes not salty but rather seasoned? Is there enough acidity? Enough richness, enough depth? If not, then think: How should I adjust this?

But often overlooked as a fundamental cooking sense is hearing. When I cook bacon, for instance, I start it in water. The gentle heat of water begins to render the fat and the bacon will never go above browning temperature; it’s cooking, but it can’t burn. But once I hear that pan crackling, I know that the water is almost gone; rendered fat can get very hot, and so I must attend to the pan.

But more important is imagined sight. What you expect to see should be a part of the cooking process.

Smell, likewise, is important, not just as an indicator of deliciousness (or the reverse) but of where you are in the cooking. If I am finishing up the components to go along with the prime rib I’m roasting in the oven, and I don’t smell that delicious roasting meat, I’d better check the oven because it’s probably not cooking properly, and not nearly done. If I smell it too early, perhaps the oven is too hot.

Touch is essential, a sense to call attention to because Americans, terrified of germs and bacteria, seem increasingly afraid of touching food. We touch a bread dough to evaluate if it has risen sufficiently. We press down on steak to intuit how done it is on the inside. We touch the top of a crème brûlée to ensure that it is smooth and brittle, not soft and sticky. Touch your food.

Sight is important, obviously — you can see that you’ve overcooked your pine nuts, or how delicious that roasted chicken is because you’ve put an aggressive coating of salt on it and roasted it in a very hot oven. You can see the oil ripple and swirl when it hits the sauté pan telling you the pan is good and hot.

But more important is imagined sight. What you expect to see should be a part of the cooking process.


When you are reducing a sauce, for instance, you should have in your mind the image of how thick that sauce should be when it is properly reduced. You should see it in your mind. Then, as the sauce reduces and you keep looking at it, stirring it, it should be continuously approaching the image in your mind. You should imagine how brown your fried chicken will be before it reaches your ideal, how much broth relative to garnish in a soup, how much fat you will render from the bacon.

But sight, both actual and imagined, can be a detriment if you are not careful, because what we see can also get in the way of our cooking. When I was in cooking school and working the grill station at the school’s busy restaurant, a student named Chen worked sauté beside me, and found himself deep in the weeds one midday service, behind in his orders, his station a mix of scraps of food, burned pieces of paper towel used to relight burners that were going out, sauce and salt and pepper spilled everywhere.

Dan Turgeon, the rugged chef instructor, seeing that Chen was a mess, stopped to chat, knowing Chen didn’t have the time, but Chen needed a lesson.

A Fresh Start – Finding Joy in Cooking

Tip: you always need more tomatoes than you think when making pasta sauce from scratch.

One year ago I started cooking. I began earnestly after returning from the Cannes Film Festival, inspired by discussions with friends, and now a year later I go to the market every other day, cooking fresh almost every night. This may not seem like much of an achievement, since most people cook and everyone eats, but for me this is a huge change. Just five years ago when I was living in Los Angeles, I was ordering Papa John’s pizzas by the double almost every other night, complimented by Taco Bell, Subway, P.F. Chang’s, Baja Fresh, Chili’s and anything else nearby I could find that I enjoyed. It made me happy at the time, as tasty food does, but of course it was not healthy. I was seriously overweight. Eventually I realized I needed a drastic change and as much as I wanted to cook, I never got the courage to do so until I finally had a nice place (a good kitchen) to cook in, and inspiration to make dishes that appealed to me, and made me happy, and healthy. It all started once I moved into a new apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, and fell in love with the Greenmarket Farmer’s Markets located around the city.

Now cooking is one of my top motivations every day. I know I’m eating healthy (or healthier), I’m in control of the food I put inside of me, and I know all of it is good for me. Plus I get to prepare food the way I like, which has allowed me to expand my taste immensely. I’ve tried more varieties of food in the last year than I have the rest of my life, and realized I’m a fan of that thing I’ve never had before. I’ve even found a great deal of peace and joy in the process of cooking. It’s a meditative experience, as many others will attest, even if repetitive. Focusing on preparation as a process, and the act of starting something from scratch and completing it to satisfaction in one evening, is hugely rewarding. It doesn’t matter if it’s making something for myself or for another person to enjoy, I feel such relief when I complete a meal. I know that I used the best ingredients that I could find, cooked everything fresh using what I wanted and nothing else, and put in the labor to make a dish that makes my tongue happy, too. And while it may take a few hours of work, during that time I can shut out everything else, forget about the worries of the day plaguing my mind, and focus solely on the food.

Red Amaranth from Lani’s Farm
Red Amaranth from Lani’s Farm

The other day at the market I bought a small bag of Red Amaranth leaves. I’ve never had them, but they looked appealing, I couldn’t help getting a few of them to toss into a creation. I thought I’d try them out, only $1 for a small bag. The other night I made a terrible dinner that I couldn’t even finish eating it was so bad. I had to throw out most of it and it really hurt. But I learned my lesson, and figured out the big mistake. These little moments of happiness, discovery, plus the chance to learn, to grow, to experience, to figure things out on my own terms, are why I’ve found so much joy in cooking. It’s a combination of the act of sourcing my food (I love going to the Farmer’s Markets around New York City); the act of deciding what and how to cook (I don’t like onions much, so I prefer shallots and always chop them up finely to my taste); the act of creating and completing a minor work of art within a few hours (using the right set of ingredients from scratch to build a satisfying dish in the end is deeply gratifying on an existential level).

I have no training, no background in cooking, no connection to any chefs, or any interest in food beyond the satisfaction it brings me. I learned from watching my parents, my brother, and videos online. I’ve grown to be a “foodie” in the last few years because I’ve really focused on what I’m eating, and focused on appreciating the freshness/complexity of what I’m eating (not just the temporary satisfaction of it). I do things my way, which is refreshing considering how daunting classic culinary practices are (you must know your five mother sauces or else!), and I make food that makes me happy, while keeping me healthy. I’ll twist a favorite dish (fried rice gets turned into fried quinoa) and improve upon it, or alter it to my liking, and the results are usually amazing. It tastes even better than it could at a restaurant, and when you achieve that kind of success in your own kitchen, it’s exhilarating. And it’s kind of addicting (and it spoils your appetite because some restaurants just aren’t up to par on preparation anymore).

This article was originally written by Alex Billington and appeared on Medium on June 3, 2015. You can read the rest of the article on Medium.

Electric stoves are the worst, and other lessons

My first meal: Clam bake with mussels, sausage, shrimp and potatoes. I had no idea what I was in for.

On April 27, 2014, I turned 29 years old. Like in years past, I took my birthday as an opportunity to a. freak out about what I’m doing with my life, and b. challenge myself with a goal to complete within the year (in hopes that completing said goal would make me feel better about what I’m doing with my life).

I needed to challenge myself to something significant — I was in the last year of my 20s, after all. So I decided to tackle something I’m no good at, something which most successful adults seem to be capable of: I was going to learn how to cook.

My final creation: Chocolate mousse.
My final creation: Chocolate mousse.

I am decidedly not the chef in our household. My husband Jamie not only enjoys cooking, but he’s really good at it. Me? Not so much. Cooking was the last thing I wanted to do when I got home from work. Simply the thought of making a meal would stress me out.

But that was a 20-something attitude. I figured cooking was something I could teach myself to love. And so, #30mealsbefore30 was born. I challenged myself to cook and document 30 unique homemade meals before my 30th birthday.

I ended the challenge on April 26, 2015 — one day before I became an official Adult — with a nutritionally unbalanced but delicious final meal.

Here’s what I learned along the way:

You can never plan for the future, no matter how much you try.

Meal 19: Caesar salad.
Meal 19: Caesar salad.

When I set out to do the 30 meals challenge, I determined I’d have to cook one meal every other week or so to stay on track for the year.

For the first 15 meals, I was right on schedule. I even cooked a Thanksgiving turkey! (Verdict: A very involved and gross process; would probably not do again.)

And then, life changed. On somewhat of a whim, I applied for and — after several rounds of interviews — landed a new job that required moving from Atlanta to St. Petersburg, Florida (more on that here). Between weeks of packing up our Atlanta house, spending more than a month in a hotel room with a tiny kitchenette, and eventually moving into our St. Pete house, the 30 meals project was thrown way off track.

If I’d known that I would leave my job and move to a new state before turning 30, I never would have committed to a year-long cooking project. But alas. Once we moved into our new place, I finally restarted the project, far behind schedule.

This article was originally written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar and appeared on Medium on May 3, 2015. You can read the rest of the article on Medium.

Why we Should Write About Food and Cooking

The simple fact is, food is important. If we do not eat, we do not survive. That’s pretty serious business if you ask me.

I have made a recent transition in my career. From covering the crime beat, I have shifted gears completely and gone into the less travelled road of ‘food journalism’. When friends and family ask me what I do, and I give them the usual spiel, I can see the ill-concealed look of disappointment.

Food writer? Can that even be a thing?

That is the thought in their minds.

To all such non-believers, here is what I have to say. (And yes, I do believe writing about food is sacred. After all, we cannot LIVE on the excitement of a crime spree now, can we?)

The simple fact is, food is important. If we do not eat, we do not survive. That’s pretty serious business if you ask me. But surely when Obama is visiting the country on the Republic day, a post on the best oils for deep frying will seem like fluff, don’t you think? No, it won’t. While Obama is surely visiting the country, and it is a highly significant event, that does not mean that people are going to stop deep frying things in the near future (even if they should!).

So fellow food writers, the next time someone makes a comment and gives a pitiful tilt of the head, know this; just because you are not crawling on your knees and covering a war in some far-flung country or shuffling between courtrooms covering trails and tribulations, it doesn’t mean that what you are writing about is not ‘important’ enough. And who decided that one should only write about the so-called important stuff. Writing is fun, it is liberating, it is empowering. If what you write gives you joy and someone is willing to pay you for it, hell, don’t stop. Live the dream, ride that high!

Food is precious. From the time we are born, food and cooking impact our lives in so many overt and covert ways. From building connections that last more than a lifetime to creating bonds that even unite countries, to preserving entire cultures, food and cooking have a lot of importance in our lives. And I am certainly not embarrassed to admit that I feel a vicarious pleasure when I write about the tastes, sounds and smells that make most mortals go weak in the knees.

But beyond the excitement and decadence of writing about food, is the undeniable fact that we SHOULD be writing about food and cooking.

The gross ignorance about cooking and nutrition have given birth to a world of disease and disorder. If only someone had written about Salmonella and Reiter’s Syndrome and Papayas and Pregnancy, and a lot of other really ‘important’ information, fatal incidents could have been prevented. Although these things are considered common knowledge, it is about time we realise that there is a lot of things that people still don’t know about food, eating and cooking.

When a generation starts living on takeaway food and steering in the direction to lifelong obesity, somebody needs to write about it. When birds that we consume become infected with diseases, someone needs to write about it. When recipes that are symbolic of entire cultures are becoming extinct, someone needs to write about it. When relationships are forged over dinner conversations, someone needs to write about it.

This article was originally written by Ramya Menon and appeared on Medium on January 26, 2015. You can read the rest of the article on Medium.

Adventures in Cooking with Kiva: Pupusas!

It’s a delicious stuffed tortilla that can be filled with any combination of beans, cheese, carnitas and chicken.

The ingredients
The ingredients

After traveling through El Salvador for a few weeks during high school on a study abroad program, I became obsessed with the traditional and most widely eaten dish in the country: pupusas. It’s a delicious stuffed tortilla that can be filled with any combination of beans, cheese, carnitas and chicken. What’s not to like? My fondest memories of my time in El Salvador were roaming the streets of different towns and villages, hoping to find some women with a roadside pupusería stand making fresh, hot deliciousness for us to enjoy. So, years later, I decided it was time I tried my hand at one of my favorite Latin American dishes I’ve ever consumed. And boy let me tell you, it was quite the adventure.

1-u0Ubn5mY8l-cBxs3J1TBkgI had a lovely helper trying out this recipe: Estela, who grew up making pupusas every day and to this day continues to make them for her family on a regular basis. And believe me, she knows what she is doing! Some of the measurements below are approximate, since Estela knows how to make these by heart.


It’s best to start with the cabbage so that it can begin to sit with the vinegar while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Finely chop a head of cabbage into thin pieces.

  • add (about) 2 ounces of apple cider vinegar, does not need to be exact
  • sprinkle oregano over the top
  • sprinkle salt
  • add ½ onion, chopped
  • sprinkle oregano
  • optional: use a peeler to shred 1 carrot

1-KvWyDzh1Ak96BHAG019pfAThe longer you let this sit, the better. The cider vinegar will continue to ferment the cabbage, and according to Estela this mixture can sit up to a month in the fridge and not only still be okay to eat, but it just gets more and more delicious every day!

This article was originally written by Margo Brookfield and appeared on Medium on November 17, 2014. You can read the rest of the article on Medium.