Major: Culinary Arts
A Style All Her Own
As food stylist and owner of Gourmet Butterfly Media & Special Events, Kersti Bowser provides food, prop styling services, and catering for special events, chef book tours, culinary demos, and television. But prior to her foodservice career, Kersti was involved in an entirely different kind of “styling.”
Discovered on the subway at the age of 16 by an editor from Seventeen magazine, Kersti became a top fashion model in the 1980s, a profession she would pursue for 12 years. “It was a dream job,” says Kersti. “I traveled all over the world and met lots of interesting people.” She graced the cover of numerous magazines and was named by Revlon as one of the most beautiful women in the world.
Amid all the glitz and glamour, Kersti harbored a secret passion. “While all the other girls were reading fashion magazines and shopping I was reading cookbooks and hosting dinner parties,” she says. “I’ve always had a deep love of food. I love the history behind it, the culinary methods, and the origin of indigenous dishes. When I traveled to foreign locales I spent all my free time hitting the streets to see what kind of crazy food was out there.”
That love of food began at an early age for Kersti. “I happily spent part of every year visiting my grandparents who lived in the mountains of Sweden,” Kersti recalls. “My grandmother made everything from scratch, often on her wood-burning stove. We would forage for mushrooms and pick blueberries, cloudberries, and raspberries while hiking through deep forests. There was always fresh fish and wild game. I still go back every year where my family has a cottage.”
When Kersti was 21 she saved $900 to enroll in a three-day seminar with a cooking instructor in Westport, CT—a woman by the name of Martha Stewart. “I couldn’t afford to stay at the local inn with the other attendees so Martha would drive me to the train station after class. She took me under her wing and really inspired me to be more creative with food.”
In the late 1990s, Kersti was living in Europe with her own thriving business—a mail-order company selling healthy alternatives in specialty foods and organic cosmetics, as well as retail stores located in three health spas in Sweden. While on a visit home she accompanied her mother to a luncheon in the Escoffier Restaurant at The Culinary Institute of America. “As I walked on the grounds and saw the students, I thought ‘This is me.’ I just knew it. I felt in my heart that I was going to be a student. It was a calling. Within a year I sold everything and was back in New York enrolled at the school.”
“It was the best decision I have ever made,” Kersti says. “It changed me, clarified me, and made me strong. I learned so much at the CIA, the most important being mental mise en place. Have everything in its place; be one step ahead; work hard with a solid, honest attitude; taking on tasks and physical work; and always paying extra attention to detail.”
It was on externship that Kersti was first introduced to food styling. “I had an interview at the Food Network. The crew was in the process of moving to their second location on the west side and they asked me if I could lift boxes. I said yes and they said you’re in. That was my ‘banana peel.’ I slid into the job.”
“At the Food Network, everything was new and you could feel something was happening. There was a sense of excitement and energy. I learned so much every day,” recalls Kersti. She worked her way up the ranks with a can-do attitude and a zest for learning.
After graduation with her associate degree in hand, Kersti returned to the Food Network full-time. In 2002 she got her first big break styling for Paula Deen’s show, Paula Deen’s Home Cooking. In the last 10 years, Kersti has worked with nearly all the chefs at the Food Network, including Sandra Lee, Rachael Ray, Anne Burell, Ming Tsai, Sara Moulton, The Neelys, Sunny Anderson, Guy Fieri, and Bobby Flay. “I call them ‘my chefs’ because when they came to the Network most of them were line chefs and now years later they’re mega-stars.”
Kersti has also styled exclusively for Tyler Florence’s Food 911 program. “We traveled to over 60 cities and to more than 100 households transforming homeowners’ kitchens into mini TV studios,” Kersti says. “Tyler is one of my favorite chefs. He taught me there is no fake food on TV. He would cook all day to get the dish just right for the camera and it would still taste delicious.”
Another famous TV chef also had a major impact on Kersti. “Probably the greatest compliment I’ve received came from Emeril Lagasse when he called me ‘chef.’ We worked side-by-side together for eight very intense weeks on his program Emeril’s Table. He put his trust in me and asked my opinion. I was just blown away.”
With all of Kersti’s travels, early morning studio calls, and the occasional simultaneous styling jobs, her proudest accomplishment is raising her son as a single mother. “It’s been quite a ride with crazy hours, but we’ve made it work.”
Despite such a full schedule both at work and at home, Kersti often volunteers to help chefs with fundraisers or charity events. One social services program in particular is close to her heart. “I’ve been very fortunate in my life and I like to give back by volunteering bi-weekly at the Ulster County Head Start program. This is a beautifully run program that services kids from underprivileged backgrounds. We read, play games, and give love and attention to the kids while teaching them about how to eat nutritious foods they normally may not receive at home.”
Today Kersti is proud to be a CIA graduate. She was instrumental in pulling the culinary team together to support Iron Chef and fellow alumna Cat Cora ’95 for two seasons on the popular Food Network show, and they remain dear friends. “There is a kinship among CIA grads that stays with you in your career. There is a clear difference in students who come out of the CIA versus other schools. There’s a real work ethic and preparedness,” says Kersti. “The truth is you have to go to culinary school, you have to learn the basics. And if you want to go to culinary school, I say bar none, go to the CIA. It’s worth every single penny. It will be your ticket to anywhere you want to work.”
It’s a ticket Kersti has used many times. “I have a great career and business. The CIA gave me the fundamentals to be successful and adaptable to different chefs, which is vital in my profession.”
Kersti has had the opportunity to style for and continues to work with Bobby Deen, Ingrid Hoffman, Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi, Rocco DiSpirito, Sandra Lee, George Duran, and Ellie Krieger. She has also styled for George Foreman Grill Products, Smucker’s Brand, Nutri Systems, Weight Watchers, Hunts Company, Kikkoman Company, Chobani Brand Yogurt, Omaha Steak Company, and Cooks Illustrated’s Americas Test Kitchen Baking Book TV promotions.