Rehoboth mourns its quintessential foodie
When the early morning text message popped up on my phone a week ago Thursday, I was sure it was another one of those infernal Rehoboth Beach rumors. But this time, I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t. Back Porch Café owner and Chef Leo Medisch had indeed passed away. I was stunned. There are certain people in your life who you feel will always be doing what they do, and for me, Leo was one of those people. He was the quintessential foodie. He did - and cooked - everything with grace and aplomb. Rehoboth Beach owes its status as a culinary destination to a very small group of pioneers, and Medisch was most certainly one of them. Many years ago, he confided to me, “My family’s celebrations were always built around food. It was - and is - a major part of my life.”
For almost 35 years, Leo has gone to work determined to share that celebratory upbringing with his guests at the Back Porch Café. He had become comfortable with his (self-proclaimed) title of chef emeritus, and in more than one conversation he credited much of his enthusiasm to his mother. She introduced him to spicy recipes and delicacies, but encouraged him to travel and to experience the world firsthand. And what better way to do that than through food?
Leo didn’t seriously brandish a whisk and spatula until he was in college. “Well, I had to eat,” he smiled. The instant gratification of cooking took the edge off of stressful days as a journalism/English major, so he whipped up goodies for his friends while working here and there in restaurants. 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.
His fascination with the ocean (combined with the expense of living in New York) quickly brought him back to the beach. Many people don’t know that this long-respected toque used to manage Pappy’s Pizza on Rehoboth Avenue - but in ’79 he migrated a half-block east to become sous chef at Back Porch Café. He loved it, but knew his true potential better than anybody. So he went back to Manhattan to attend culinary school. During that time he managed the upscale eatery in Macy’s department store, eventually progressing to Bloomingdales’ very French and very tony Le Train Bleu.
No story about Leo would be complete without mentioning Siri Svasti. In fact, Medisch credited his culinary philosophy to the French-speaking chef, part owner of Back Porch Café, and Thai prince. Svasti shared Leo’s love for the beach, abandoning the diplomatic bustle of Washington, D.C. to work here. Medisch absorbed Svasti’s culinary values. “He taught me the great satisfaction of preparing a perfect piece of fish, whether you’re cooking one or a hundred.
“We were the perfect team,” said Medisch. “Siri was out front, and I took care of the kitchen.” Of course, everything must change, and in ’87 Svasti left Rehoboth to become a celebrity TV chef in Thailand. It wasn’t long before Leo partnered with former bartender and cook Marilyn Spitz and former waiter/bar manager Keith Fitzgerald to keep Back Porch Café running smoothly.
Up until recently, as befitting his hallowed position as chef emeritus, Leo maintained fairly sane hours ordering food and helping to keep the menu fresh and interesting. He credited Chef Tim McNitt, now the kitchen boss (and Leo’s co-chef for many years) with being “the guiding force for dinner.” He, Fitzgerald, Spitz and McNitt agreed long ago that they must be willing to invest in only the very best ingredients. Leo summed up his recipe for success: “You can’t shop pennies when it comes to quality.”
There’s not enough space in my little corner of the Cape Gazette to express my sentiments over the passing of Chef Leo Medisch. And there are no words for how Keith, Tim, Marilyn, Bee and the rest of the Back Porch family must feel. Leo was one-of-a-kind, and his memory will be savored for a long, long time.