The Back Porch Café in Rehoboth Beach is mourning the loss of its heart and soul.
Chef Leo Medisch, a fixture at the restaurant for its nearly 40 years in business, passed away Aug. 21 at age 60 after a battle with lung cancer.
“For me personally, he was like a brother,” co-owner Keith Fitzgerald said. “He was kind of the glue that held everything together in a lot of ways. We lost our best friend.”
Medisch passed away at home surrounded by family and friends.
One of the founding employees of the Back Porch, Medisch was one of those people that came to the beach and never left, Fitzgerald said.
A journalism major at University of Indiana, Medisch started his restaurant career in Rehoboth with Pappy’s Pizza, at the corner of First Street and Rehoboth Avenue. When the Back Porch opened in 1974, he began as a kitchen worker before working his way to kitchen manager.
When original owner Victor Pisapia left to start the Blue Moon in 1980, Medisch and Fitzgerald, who both started as employees, became part of the ownership group that kept the Back Porch going.
Libby York, an original co-owner, said Medisch had a calm temperament in the face of the chaos that can be a restaurant kitchen. York, who left the Back Porch to become a jazz singer, said Medisch loved music, especially Broadway musicals.
“We had fun singing together in the kitchen,” York said. “One special memory was on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. We would bring the whole Back Porch Cafe crew over to Cape May after Labor Day for bicycle day trip. Leo and I started singing some songs some from Wonderful Town. We grabbed mops and brooms leaning against the side of the ship – these were the old, smaller boats – and danced with them a la Gene Kelly.”
Fitzgerald remembered Medisch as a giving person, who inspired loyalty in his coworkers. Employees who left and had been gone for years would still come back to visit Medisch, he said.
Back Porch co-owner Marilyn Spitz said Medisch was a kind, loving man who lived with style and grace and was patient and generous with his knowledge of cooking.
"Every member of our kitchen staff had a personal connection with him," she said. "They have worked so carefully to make him proud of them, and in that they have succeeded."
Peggy Raley-Ward, co-owner of Nassau Valley Vineyards, was friends with Medisch for 33 years. The two bonded over a love of jazz music when they were neighbors in Lewes.
"He was just an amazing spirit and a great light and a joy to everyone that knew him," she said. "He's been one of the bright spots of my life for 33 years."
Among those who paid their respects to Medisch before he died, Fitzgerald said, was fellow chef Siri Svasti, who worked with Medisch in the 1980s before returning to his native Thailand in 1989, where he became a celebrity chef under the name Chef McDang. Svasti posted a picture of himself and Medisch in tribute on Svasti’s Instagram page.
“That’s the kind of loyalty he inspired,” Fitzgerald said.
Medisch was not a school-trained chef, but he could soak up influences from many places and integrate them into the Back Porch menu, Fitzgerald said.
“He had a really sharp, creative palette,” he said.
Fitzgerald said Medisch was always good for a laugh and a smile, even over the last decade or so as he struggled with HIV, and then with cancer. It was only when he broke his hip that doctors discovered Medisch had cancer that had spread to his bones. At that point, Fitzgerald said, Medisch had stage 4 lung cancer. When chemotherapy was not effective, treatment was stopped. Fitzgerald said Medisch had been a candidate for a new oral chemotherapy treatment, but over the last 10 days, his condition worsened, and he was released to hospice care.
“He was ready to give up the struggle,” Fitzgerald said. “I think he was just waiting to get out of the hospital.”
After two hours in hospice care, Medisch passed away at 9:30 p.m.
“He was definitely one of the reasons the Porch became the Grand Dame of the Rehoboth restaurant scene,” York said.