The level of excitement generated by the return of Chef Fernand Tersiguel to Ellicott City can only be likened to the circus coming to town -- before the days of television, VCRs and MTV.
Residents of the historic town of Ellicott City said they have been waiting for this event for five years, ever since the first Chez Fernand -- a few blocks farther down the street -- burned down in 1985.
After trying unsuccessfully to find a new site in Howard County, Tersiguel left the area to open a restaurant in Baltimore, leaving a gap that has never been filled, patrons said.
But rumors had circulated for months that Chez Fernand, as he is known to many, would return to Ellicott City this fall.
When the big day finally came on Oct. 17, Tersiguel had legions of faithful patrons lined up and waiting.
"I love it. Fernand is fantastic," said Paula Woods, who said she had eaten at the restaurant three times. "It's wonderful to have him back. No one will give you the attention he does."
Indeed, Fernand Tersiguel is a man who pays attention to detail. During a typical lunch at the restaurant, he is constantly in motion -- greeting customers at the front door one moment, hopping from table to table talking to diners the next, and cooking his special crepes tableside for a diner a minute later.
Patrons and employees said the ambience at the new Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant is wonderful, the food is fantastic, but what really makes the place is the man.
"Everyone knows him, and he knows everyone. They are thrilled with him," said Dana Skalny, a partner at Crossroads Design, who said she had been to lunch at Tersiguel's five or six times since it opened.
Restaurant manager and maitre d' Timothy Gregory, who has worked for Tersiguel on and off since 1984, said his boss's enthusiasm for the restaurant business makes all of his restaurant ventures successful.
"It's his love for people and love for food that make the place. I mean, the man gets excited talking about a piece of lettuce," Gregory said.
The restaurant features French country cooking from Brittany, including seafood, veal and beef dishes, crepes and salads. Prices for entrees at lunch range from $4.95 to $15.95 and at dinner from $10.95 to $22.95.
Tersiguel also plans to start a catering business and to begin serving breakfast soon.
He is always looking for new ideas and travels to France twice a year to gather new recipes and techniques. He recently came back from France with a recipe for a duck gizzard salad, which he claims is the rage in France.
People may not want to order it if they know what it is, he said. But once they try it, they'll want it again and again.
Gregory said Tersiguel is unique in that he does everything in the restaurant -- not just the usual restaurant-owner activities of overseeing the business and greeting customers.
"He clears tables, he washes dishes, he cooks, he does everything," Gregory said. "How many restaurant owners would wash dishes? Most would think it's beneath them."
Tersiguel, who works with his wife Odette as "executive chef" at the new restaurant, has no formal training as a chef. Most of his training is in restaurant management, he said.
But his love of cooking goes way back. He started preparing meals for his entire family at age 6 or 7 on the family farm in Brittany.
Tersiguel moved from France to New York at age 21 to find work in the restaurant business. After a few years in New York, he moved in 1972 to Columbia, where he worked at a couple of Howard County restaurants.
He opened the first Chez Fernand in 1975 on Main Street, Ellicott City.
At Chez Fernand, he earned a reputation for providing superb French food in an ambience unequaled in the county.
"By 1977, the restaurant was really successful," Tersiguel said.
But in 1985, Chez Fernand was completely destroyed by fire, along with a dozen other businesses located in the middle of Main Street.
Tersiguel said he couldn't wait for the site to be rebuilt; he had to find another restaurant site quickly. "When we don't work, we make no money," he said.
Unable to find a suitable place in the county ready for immediate occupancy, Tersiguel left for East Fayette Street in Baltimore a month later.
He admits that within two years he was plotting his return to Main Street and he finally sold Chez Fernand -- along with the name -- in August to Chandre Petel. His 26-year-old son, Michel, still works there as a cook, although Tersiguel no longer has any affiliation with the restaurant.
He says he likes the cozy atmosphere of Main Street better than downtown Baltimore, and he knows all of his patrons here.
"I missed being in a little town," he said.
Patrons who have eaten at the first Chez Fernand, the second in Baltimore and now Tersiguel's say the food and service has been excellent at all three, but they like the surroundings and decor at the new restaurant the best.