Chef Carl Thorne-Thomsen has long, slender fingers -- the kind of fingers not meant to be cramped and bent over a keyboard, hunting and pecking for letters, when they're capable of wielding a chef's knife with blinding speed.
But he didn't know that when he was enrolled at Wichita State University, studying to get his MFA in creative writing. He knew something wasn't right, but he just couldn't put his finger on it.
A window has just been taken out of the space that will become Story Restaurant (3931 W. 69th Terrace, in Prairie Village) to create an entrance to the patio. Contractors are preparing to set tile in anticipation of the kitchen equipment that will finally leave Thorne-Thomsen's garage and make its way to the restaurant this week. Story is expected to open by the end of this month.
And the chef who is eager to get into his kitchen can't help but think about why he's not holed up at a desk writing short stories.
"With writing, I didn't know how to fix it," Thorne-Thomsen says. "But with food, I found this thing that I understood I could make better. I didn't know how to cook a chicken when I started, but I was willing to work at it and pursue it and make it better."
When he left the MFA program, Thorne-Thomsen went to Wichita's With a Twist -- a gourmet grocer with a small espresso bar. He thought he might be able to convince them that they should sell his baked goods. Instead, he ended up running their lunch counter and kitchen.
"We made everything from scratch. The amount of time I put into that lunch didn't make sense," Thorne-Thomsen says.
But it wasn't just lunch. He was also evolving as a chef. After three years, he could whip up everything from soup to puff pastry. The kitchen had been his classroom. He had also fallen in love with one of the owners, Susan.
The couple decided to move to Kansas City because Susan has family in the area. Thanks to then-general manager Ryan Sciarra's recommendation, Thorne-Thomsen was hired at 40 Sardines. He started at the salad station progressing to the saute line over a period of three years.
"They did crazy things like seat a 20-top at 7 p.m. on Saturday night," Thorne-Thomsen says. "You could see the servers pushing tables together from the open kitchen, and it would be like, oh, man, here we go."
He learned quickly that it's not fun to cook when a restaurant is slow. Over time, the number of entrees at his station rose from eight to 10 to 14 a night. When Michael Smith Restaurant opened in 2007, Thorne-Thomsen was the chef du cuisine. He worked on the menu with Smith and later oversaw the kitchen at Extra Virgin when it launched next door the following year. Thorne-Thomsen was cultivating many of the skills he would need as a restaurateur: ordering food, tracking inventory and managing the staff.
The concept for his own kitchen began to take shape in December 2009. He had put together a business plan, only it wasn't for a restaurant in Kansas City. Thorne-Thomsen had settled on Santa Barbara. His grandparents still lived there. He and Susan had been married in the California city.
"I'm an ingredient person. I don't want to fly fish in if I don't have to," Thorne-Thomsen says.
But the challenge of finding a space in another city and a series of stalled negotations convinced him that maybe he was trying too hard to find something that he already had in Kansas City. Susan discovered an empty retail space in Prairie Village, and the restaurant build-out began at the start of this year. Now he's just waiting to show off his vision for what he hopes will be a neighborhood staple.
"With writing, I could work on something forever. But with food, it has to go out of the kitchen, and you have to let it go," Thorne-Thomsen says.
And now, more than a decade later, he's finally working on a new Story.