36 years in Rehoboth! They must be doing something right…
The High Holy Days are here! I’ve replaced the batteries in my fork and had my jaws temporarily unwired in anticipation of Rehoboth Beach Restaurant Week. Three-course dinners, wine pairings, lunch specials…oh my. Even the beachy yet refined Back Porch Café is getting in on the act, and the excitement is not lost on part-owner Leo Medisch, who explains, “My family’s celebrations were built around food. It was a major part of my life.”
For well over 30 years, Leo has gone to work determined to share his food-centered upbringing with his guests at The Back Porch. The self-proclaimed chef emeritus (he thinks he’s old - tell me about it, Leo) attributes much of that enthusiasm to his mother. She wouldn’t allow him to help in the kitchen, but instead introduced him to spicy recipes and delicacies like steak tartare (raw hamburger - back when it was safe). She encouraged him to travel and to experience the world firsthand. And what better way to do that than through food?
Medisch didn’t seriously brandish a whisk and spatula until he was in college. “Well, I had to eat,” he says. Cooking took the edge off of stressful days as a journalism/English major, so in addition to whipping up vittles for his friends, he worked 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.
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 (remember that place?), he was hired in ’79 as sous chef at The Back Porch.
Leo was hooked. He went back to Manhattan to attend culinary school and took a job managing the upscale eatery in Macy’s department store. It wasn’t long before he progressed into Bloomingdales’ very French and very tony Le Train Bleu restaurant.
He credits much of his culinary philosophy to the French-speaking Siri Svasti, then chef and part owner of The Back Porch. Svasti was, in fact, a Thai prince who abandoned the diplomatic hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C., to work at the beach. Medisch absorbed many of Svasti’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. We were the perfect team,” says 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 TV chef in Thailand. Leo partnered up with former bartender and cook Marilyn Spitz and former waiter/bar manager Keith Fitzgerald. The trio now keeps The Back Porch Café running smoothly.
In his hallowed position as chef emeritus, Leo maintains fairly sane hours. He orders food, manages the schedule, and keeps the menu fresh and interesting. He credits Tim McNitt, his co-chef of 15 years, with being the guiding force for dinner. The Key West-flavored bar is expertly manned by longtime mixologist and Rehoboth fixture Bee Neild. On a busy night, the unflappable Bee is an island of calm amid the summer whirlwind of servers, bussers and guests. (I’ll have what he’s having, thank you.)
“You’ve got to be willing to spend the money for the very best ingredients,” says Medisch. “You can’t shop pennies when it comes to specialty meats, fresh fish, local produce, spices and quality olive oil.”
Staples like ketchup, salsa, preserved lemons, sausage, ravioli, rhubarb jam - the list goes on and on - are made in-house. Even the restaurant’s renowned desserts are designed, engineered and constructed on the premises by 20-year veteran pastry chef Esther Kernosh.
“We entertain our customers like they’re in our home,” Leo says. “Then they entertain us in the off-season.” Uh oh…that sounds like a hint to invite him to dinner at my house. I’ve never been intimidated by a dinner guest, but there’s a first time for everything.