It's not hard to track down Ernie Nagy. Just follow the string of restaurants he's helped open in or near Harford County in the past decade.
Starting in 1980, when he was chef and "a very junior partner" of Georgetown North, a popular eatery on Bel Air's Main Street, Nagy has been chef, owner, or both, of three restaurants in Harford and another in Monkton, Baltimore County.
During the past year, he and two partners have been running Tidewater Grille at the foot of Franklin Street along the Susquehanna River, where he's chef and hands-on kitchen manager.
"It all comes from the kitchen," Nagy said Thursday during an interview on the restaurant's deck overlooking the Susquehanna. "I don't care how good a management you have. I don't care how pretty the place is, how much you spend on decor."
Gerry C. Furst, owner of the O.C. Sneakers restaurant in the Ocean City Health & Racquet Club, remembers Nagy as an aggressive kitchen manager who was "extremely temperamental" and elevated the restaurant to gourmet status.
"He's a very, very tough chef; very demanding not only on the people who work in the kitchen, but also waiters and waitresses," Furst said.
"He was the kind of chef, if you didn't pick up a dish in a certain amount of time, he'd really chew you out," Furst said. "Sometimes if more than 30 seconds elapsed he got excited. It was important for him to get that dish out to the customer."
Nagy's demanding nature initially worried Furst.
"There were a few times in the beginning when I though we weren't going to make it. The waitresses had come crying to me that Ernie yelled at them," Furst said. "It sometimes was very difficult. You wanted to condone what Ernie was doing, but you didn't want to lose the wait staff."
After the waitresses found their customers liked getting warmer meals faster and tipped them more, "the tears stopped," Furst said.
Nagy admits he's "volatile" and says his partners help round out Tidewater Grille's management.
Mark A. Haseni, who manages the restaurant's finances, is "very level-headed...I'm the one with the short fuse. It's a good balance."
His other partner, Helen Andrese, is general manager and has built a top-notch wait staff, he said.
Since opening a little more than a year ago in the building that housed the former Bay Steamer restaurant, the 220-seat Tidewater Grille has been busy with local trade and the Havre de Grace tourist trade, Nagy said.
"We see a lot of out-of-state tags in our parking lot," Nagy said.
Tidewater Grille's varied menu of seafood, pasta, Cajun, chicken and veal dishes ranging about $10 to $18 has garnered praise from restaurant critics in The Sun and local weekly newspapers.
But Nagy said getting the restaurant ready for its Aug. 25 opening last year wasn't easy.
First, the 45-year-old Marine veteran and his partners pumped $50,000 into the restaurant for renovations, supplies and kitchen equipment, such as freezers, a dishwasher and a gas stove.
The renovation took six weeks and included upgrading the restaurant's plumbing and electricity to make sure it met building and health codes, Nagy said.
"We got everything in rather easily, though it was a lot of work."
More difficult was having Bay Steamer's liquor license transferred to Tidewater Grille.
Daniel W. Lee, who was Nagy's partner at two Bel Air restaurants and owner of MacGregor's, where Nagy worked as chef before starting Tidewater Grille, tried to block the transfer.
Lee had protested the transfer, saying the Tidewater Grille would not be able to prove financial stability -- a requirement of getting a liquor license -- because a dearth of parking would keep customers away.
The Harford County Liquor Board rejected Lee's argument and approved the transfer, 5-0.
Lee declined to comment for this story.
Nagy suspects he may have raised Lee's ire by buying the Bay Steamer, which Lee had wanted to buy. At the time he was MacGregor's chef, Nagy was looking to leave and open his own restaurant. Nagy said he looked at restaurants in Annapolis and at Charles Center and the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, but picked the Havre de Grace location.
After negotiations between Lee and Bay Steamer's owner broke down, Nagy and his partners bought the restaurant.
"Of course, this made him pretty upset," Nagy said.
Nagy said he bought the Bay Steamer because it was busy.
"While I was chef at MacGregor's, our food was better, our service was better." Yet on Saturdays, he said, the Bay Steamer was filled with diners.
"I saw a great deal of potential here."
In the past, Nagy has had mixed success with his restaurants in Harford.
When chef at Georgetown North in the early 1980s, he was credited with bringing fine dining to Bel Air, which was growing from a backwater town into a bedroom community for Baltimore. Nagy, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park, N.Y., claims credit for bringing dishes such as quiche and blackened fish to county diners.