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Going on 44 years! They must be doing something right....

November 3, 2017

I never miss Sea Witch Sunday brunch at Back Porch Café. There's something special about being there on what is traditionally their last day of the season. Not that they actually need to close; I can guarantee that weekend reservations would be required throughout the winter if they chose to stay open. I like owner Keith Fitzgerald's reasoning for shutting down in the fall: "The original owners were schoolteachers," he explains. "We liked the schoolteachers' life: nine months on, three months off. But when somebody suggested [43 years ago] that they open a restaurant at the beach, we loved the resort restaurateur's life: three months on, nine months off." And it's been that way ever since.

Back in those days, one of the partners at the Back Porch Café shared the position of executive chef with the late Leo Medisch. Unbeknownst to anyone, Siri Svasti was a real, authentic Thai prince. He grew up in the palace kitchens watching the chefs prepare dinner for royalty. As a young student in England, he pined for the tastes of home, so he ventured into the kitchen and prepared his very first meal. It was delicious and he was hooked.

One day, while attending diplomatic classes at Georgetown University, he turned on the TV. And there she was: Julia Child. That did it. He got a job as a lunch cook at the Back Porch Café; absorbing everything he could. "It was as if someone had turned the lights on in a very dark room," he reminisces. He worked elbow-to-elbow with Medisch for many years before returning to Thailand. His bright outlook and even brighter personality immediately put him into the spotlight as the most famous and celebrated television chef in Southeast Asia. Often referred to as the "Bobby Flay of Thailand," he has written a number of popular cookbooks in English and in Thai, with an accent on the culture behind the ingredients and techniques. Intrigued? Learn more about the celebrated Chef McDang at www.chefmcdang.com.

Sadly, we lost the quiet, gentle and talented Leo Medisch several years ago. Current Executive Chef Tim McNitt has faithfully maintained Leo's commitment to quality ingredients, keeping the Back Porch Café at the very top of the fine-dining roster in Rehoboth Beach. Medisch didn't seriously brandish a whisk and spatula until he was in college. "Well, I had to eat," he told me. Around 1976, he and a friend set off for New York City to find their fortunes, but not before stopping in Rehoboth Beach for a seafood dinner.

Well, the best-laid plans.... A lingering attraction to the ocean, not to mention the expense of living in New York, brought Leo back to the beach. After managing Pappy's Pizza on Rehoboth Avenue, he was hired in '79 as sous chef at The Back Porch. After the restaurant closed for the season (back when everybody did), he returned to Manhattan to attend culinary school. He took a job managing the upscale eatery in Macy's department store; progressing shortly thereafter into Bloomingdales' very French and very tony Le Train Bleu restaurant.

He credits much of his culinary philosophy to the French-speaking Siri's culinary values and beliefs. "He taught me the great satisfaction of preparing a perfect piece of fish, whether you're cooking one or a hundred. You've got to be willing to spend the money for the very best ingredients," said Medisch. "You can't shop pennies when it comes to specialty meats, fresh fish, local produce, spices and quality olive oil."

There are many other names that were a big part of the evolution of the restaurant. The late Ted Fisher. His wife Libby York (now a celebrated jazz singer). Original partner Victor Pisapia. Current partner Marilyn Spitz. And of course Rehoboth Beach's star bartender, Bee Neild. Just to name a few.

Medisch paid current Chef Tim McNitt the highest compliment when he dubbed him "the guiding force" at the Back Porch Café. Staples like ketchup, salsa, preserved lemons, sausage, ravioli, rhubarb jam - the list goes on and on - are all still made in-house. In my last interview with Chef Leo, he summed it up best: "We entertain our customers like they're in our home." I was there last Sunday, and I can attest to the fact that that has not changed.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.

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