Beloved chef, brother and friend honored at Nassau Valley Vineyards

The who’s who of Rehoboth Beach restaurant history came out to honor Leo Medisch: (l-r) Nancy Wolfe Wayson, Chez la Mer; Joyce Felton, Blue Moon; Keith Fitzgerald, Back Porch; Sydney Arzt, Sydney’s; and Alison Blyth, La La Land. PHOTOS BY BOB YESBEK/CHRIS FOSTER
April 29, 2014

A local psychotherapist and columnist with whom I am acquainted weighs the pros and cons of dwelling on sad memories. He calls it “taking them off the shelf and playing with them,” and suggests that it should be done rarely, and then only if necessary. In other words, sad memories are often better left on the shelf in order to help us move on from a tragic loss.

But extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures, and last Saturday’s celebration of the life of Leo Medisch was one of those circumstances. For those of you who might have just recently landed on this planet, Leo Medisch was the longtime co-owner and chef at the Back Porch Café, Rehoboth’s first fine-dining restaurant. This serene, talented and genuine man passed away at far too young an age in August 2013.

Last Saturday at Nassau Valley Vineyards, memories of Leo were not only taken off the shelf, they were passed around, proudly displayed, and talked, laughed and cried over. The event was held primarily for Leo’s out-of-town relatives, many of whom were unable to make it to Rehoboth when he died. But there were just as many locals in attendance who remembered him not only as a great chef, but also as a friend. Leo would have loved it.

There was food. Lots of it. Executive Chef Tim McNitt supervised two huge charcoal grills where a seemingly endless number of pork loins and veggies sizzled to perfection. Tim was ably assisted by one of Leo’s old friends, Claire Owens of Claire Owens Catering. Claire worked at Back Porch many years ago, and she and Tim put out a spread worthy of their former boss.

And of course there was music, skillfully provided by none other than the John Ewart Trio, a fixture at Back Porch on festival weekends. Nassau Valley Winery owner (and jazz singer in her own right) Peggy Raley shared a love of music with Leo and his late partner, Tom Wilson, who passed away 19 years ago this May. Raley said that the Lewes artist, model and teacher “was most important to me because he made Leo happy. I got to know Tom through Leo’s eyes, and when he died, I lost Tom all over again.” She recounted the days leading up to both Tom’s and Leo’s passing, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The Rev. Max J. Wolf, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Parish in Rehoboth Beach, offered a touching invocation centered on scriptural references to feasting and spiritual nourishment. He explained that the mission statement of his parish emphasizes the belief that God’s love, rather than retribution, will be known. He also revealed the church’s other motto: “Y’gotta eat!” The juxtaposition of uproarious laughter with almost unbearably sad moments was the defining theme of the afternoon. Leo would have loved it.

His five sisters were in attendance, and Jackie Paullin took the lead. “When we were in Rehoboth, we didn’t have names. We were just ‘Leo’s sisters.’ I’d go to the bank to cash a check, and they’d say, ‘Oh, we know you. You’re Leo’s sister.’” She told the story of when Leo hired her to wait tables at Back Porch. Far from his treating her differently, Jackie made it clear that, “We were both Medisches. We did the best job possible, or else there’d be hell to pay. And Leo was the hell.” Laughter.

Then the juxtaposition: “We sang, we laughed, and with him I saw the world like no one else. Leo was not only an amazing brother, he was an amazing person. He had a quiet greatness, and was the epitome of grace. There’s a hole in my heart that will never be filled. We all love you, Leo.” Boxes of Kleenex were everywhere. Leo would have found that amusing.

The afternoon included a spirited conga line, snaking through the winery’s event room to the sounds of “We are Family.” But not before Peggy Raley topped off the day by thanking the Medisch family for “sharing Leo with us.” She then read a letter from Kenneth Robbins, Tom Wilson’s former partner and good friend to both Tom and Leo. He recounted a story about Leo and Tom’s visit to Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Los Angeles. “During dinner, Wolfgang Puck came out into the room populated by the likes of Swifty Lazar and Jackie Collins. The famous chef pulled up a chair and sat down next to Leo. He said, ‘I hear you have a restaurant. Tell me about it.’ That moment is how I choose to remember Leo, bright pink with pride as he was forced to acknowledge that he was the focus of everyone’s attention.”

Through Peggy, Kenneth then assigned Leo to “the best deuce in Heaven, up front, away from the kitchen, right near the window.” Deuce is restaurant-speak for a table for two. And yes, Leo would have loved it.

  • 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

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