May 11 2017 02:53 AM

Behind the scenes with the owners of Red Haven

Chef Anthony “Tony” Maiale, 34, and front of the house manager Nina Santucci, 34, are the owners of East Lansing’s Red Haven restaurant. Last week, City Pulse sat down with the entrepreneurial couple to talk about the ups and downs of owning and running a restaurant, married life and more.

What made you want to start a restaurant together?

Maiale: We met in a restaurant, about 15 years ago. We still are working in restaurants, but at that time it was just something that engulfed our lives and something that we just always kind of wanted to do. So that’s what we worked toward.

Santucci: When I was in college, I was a server at a restaurant where Tony was one of the chefs. That was just outside of Philadelphia. We’ve worked together quite a few times since then; we’ve moved around the country quite a bit. Tony’s always been in kitchens, and for the most part, I’ve always been in the front of the house. It’s been a nice dynamic, because we work together, but we’re not constantly side by side.

Why East Lansing?

Santucci: I’m originally from Michigan, so that’s why we came here. When we were looking at restaurant spaces, it was pretty alarming that it was pretty much all chain restaurants. We wanted to make sure that what we brought to the table would fly here. So that’s where the (Purple Carrot) food truck came in. The original plan was to be in East Lansing for the first half of the summer and then bring the truck up to Traverse City the second half of the summer, just to see if we fit one place better than the other — or if anyone wanted us there at all. We ended up never leaving here. We had a really crazy opening summer in 2011, and then the restaurant opened in 2012.

Why farm-to-table?

Maiale: It just makes sense. When you’re using the best quality product, you don’t really have to do much to get the best quality dishes. And the best quality product comes from your backyard, which isn’t traveling thousands of miles away. And then the personal connections and relationships with the farmers, that they can just grow whatever they want for you, anything you can’t get from the farmers market or anything else. You just say, “Do it this way and this size,” and you can get what you really, really want.

Santucci: We lived in Texas in 2006, when there was the big recession. I remember hearing about it on the news, but you wouldn’t have never known that in Austin, because there was so much growth happening. The city was just bustling and doing so well. In Texas, they have a very pro-Texas thing going on, promoting community, but Austin particularly took it a step forward. Chain restaurants didn’t do well there. It just created this bubble where they weren’t as affected by the recession as we were up here. One time we were up here visiting for a holiday or something, and we were just like, “Woah, this is what they’re talking about on the news.” It was a completely different environment. We knew we would be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on food; if we can keep it in our community, we can do a little bit of helping our local economy. It’s a lot more rewarding, writing those checks knowing that it’s going to a family who we have a relationship with.

How do you approach creating dishes?

Maiale: A lot of that is just prior experiences. It’s all about playing and experimenting. There’s some dishes that I have this idea in my head, and I can’t get it onto the plate. I keep trying and trying and trying, and it just doesn’t work. And then finally it does work. But then there’s some dishes you try once, and it’s perfect. I’m really all about experimenting.

Santucci: The start of our menu always starts with what’s in season. It’s a big puzzle. It’s sometimes harder to work on the menu when we have a lot to work with. It can be overwhelming.

What is your favorite part about being a chef ?

Maiale: I truthfully think that cooking is the best part; it just brings me back to when I first started. Our kitchen can definitely get chaotic and busy, but it’s a welloiled machine, and I’m lucky with the guys that I work with back there. They’re super dedicated, and they know what’s going on, so they aren’t all frazzled and running around with their heads cut off.

Between running a business together and being married, how do you manage home and work life?

Santucci: We have a little kid on the way, so that’s going to really be an interesting dynamic to throw into the mix. I’m due Aug. 10 with a little boy. We’re here most of the time; Tony is here 12, maybe more hours per day. Most of our life is spent here. We try to have a little bit of separation, but it’s our life. We basically eat, breathe and sleep this place. Our balance isn’t great. We don’t get a lot of time off, but I think we both enjoy it so much, I just can’t imagine it any other way.

Maiale: We don’t do a good job. We’re going to find out shortly though. That’s the good thing about starting from scratch and doing everything different, is that you’re needed, but you’ve got to train everyone and trust everyone so that they can do it without you. I mean it’s tough, especially with the workforce out there today, it’s hard to find good people.

Red Haven 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Tuesday- Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday; 5-8:30 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday (Bar stays open one hour after kitchen closes) 4480 Hagadorn Road #103, Okemos (517) 679-6309,