A Rehoboth mainstay celebrates 48 seasons on The Avenue
As a fleeting escape from the continuing unpleasantness and restrictions still hobbling our Delaware restaurants, I sometimes reminisce over the people who braved the early days to bring their food and talents to this little seasonal resort. The list would go on forever, but lately I’ve been thinking of one very special guy who was a major player for today’s fine-dining constituency here at the beach. Seems only right; the restaurant he helped put on the map opens this week for its 48th season.
It was late August 2013 when the early-morning text message popped up on my phone. Even back then, I was wary of the crazy rumors that fly around down here, but this time I’m sorry to say that the news was sad and true. Back Porch Café partner 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 is most certainly one of them. Many years ago, he confided to me that, “My family’s celebrations were always built around food. It was - and is - a major part of my life.”
For almost 35 years, Leo went to work determined to share that celebratory upbringing with his Back Porch Café guests. In the later days, he had become bemused by 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 first-hand. 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 the now long-gone Pappy’s Pizza on Rehoboth Avenue, but in ’79 he made that fateful move 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 returned 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 Thailand’s celebrity toque Siri Svasti. In fact, Medisch credited his culinary philosophy to the French-speaking chef who is also a Thai prince in his own right. Svasti shared Leo’s love for the beach, and eventually abandoned 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 moved on to make a name for himself as the most famous TV chef in Southeast Asia, boasting eight Thai-language cookbooks, one English-language cookbook and multiple TV cooking shows as Chef McDang.
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 his passing, 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 his friend and sous chef Tim McNitt with being “the guiding force for dinner.” He, Fitzgerald, Spitz and McNitt agreed 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.”
Early last year, Keith and Marilyn relinquished the reins of Back Porch to longtime trusted employees Dmitry Shubich and Aksana Voranova. Keith and Marilyn remained quietly in the background for a while as, in Keith’s words, “facilitators and advisors.” But by June of last year, Keith tells me that Dmitry and Aksana “had it down.” Small restaurants are very personal endeavors, and invariably reflect the philosophies of their owners, chefs and managers. Back Porch Café will be no different.
Longtime mixologist Bee Neild remains at his post behind the bar, and Chef Tim McNitt has moved on to the new Harbour restaurant in Lewes (where Gilligan’s used to be). But not to worry: His skilled sous chef has stepped into the executive position, and most if not all of Back Porch’s faithful kitchen crew remain on board.
Though it’s been almost eight years, there’s not enough space in my little corner of the Cape Gazette to express my sentiments over the passing of Chef Leo Medisch. Back Porch Café is living proof that attention to quality and detail breeds longevity. All indicators point to continued success for the little restaurant that played a leading role in Rehoboth’s status as a fine-dining destination.