|by Mark Aguirre|
|A Chat with Leo Medisch
(Leo Medisch and John McLaughlin at the Celebrity Chef's Beach Brunch)
Most people come here first for the ocean. But, one of the reasons many return is because of the good restaurants. Leo Medisch, chef and co-owner of Back Porch Caf, has been an important part of the restaurant community here for several decades. I recently sat down with him in his home in Lewes to talk about his experiences here. I learned that not only does the Back Porch have one of the best chefs in town, but also one of the most interesting and charming as well.
Mark: What first brought you to the Rehoboth Beach area?
Leo: Originally I'm from Indianapolis, Indiana. I went to Indiana University. I came out here after college with a school friend from Seaford. They had a place at the beach here in Rehoboth. We were going to move to New York, but I sort of got sand in my shoes and stayed. I met some really great people who became my closest friends. I met my soul mate here. That made it easy to stay around and start a life.
Mark: Is there something that draws you to live near the water?
Leo: Coming from a state that does not have a lot of water, it's great to be near the ocean. The water and sea is romantic and mysterious. It makes you think about other places. It is relaxing and calming to live by. That is unless it's July or August!
Mark: That's your busiest part of the season at The Back Porch Caf. How did you come to be chef and co-owner there?
Leo: In 1979 it was the only restaurant doing gourmet cooking. I went to apply to be a sous-chef there and was lucky enough to get the job. Within a couple of years two of the original owners went on to other ventures. Libby York became a jazz singer and Victor Pisapia left to open the Blue Moon with Joyce Felton. That left a need for a partner around the kitchen. That's how I became an owner. Ted, the only other owner at that time, needed someone to run the front of the house and that turned out to be Keith Fitzgerald. I believe we are the oldest restaurant in town. This is our thirty first year, which is actually quite amazing.
Mark: Tell us about what you do.
Leo: After twenty-eight years of doing this, I'm not there at night anymore. I'm around during the day for brunch and lunch. I plan how the day goes, ordering food and making sure everyone shows up. We are one of the few upscale restaurants that serve lunch seven days a week during the season.
Mark: The Back Porch Caf doesn't remain open year round. Why is that?
Leo: The opportunity is there to make more money if you're open more. But, that wouldn't give me the chance to travel and enjoy my life, as well as have a successful and satisfying career. The career is stimulating, because of all the people who come through a resort community. I meet so many interesting people. I was a student of history and we are drawing from some of the oldest cities in our country, which made it all the more exciting to move here and stay.
Mark: Where do you go when you escape?
Leo: The beauty here is the laid back lifestyle. If you are a person that doesn't need the urban life 24/7 this is a great area to live. But major cities are only two and a half hours away. I went to Philadelphia primarily for a number of years. I have friends in Baltimore. I go to New York a lot. Right now it seems to be Washington, DC. I go to restaurants mostly to check out what's happening. I shop, go to museums. All that stuff. Life is short and I need to take advantage of the time that I have.
Mark: Is there advice you'd give to someone interested in relocating here to open a new business?
Leo: I think it was easier back in the 70s. The Back Porch was successful from the beginning. That's really hard to do now. You have to do your homework. You need to do your research very well. Do analysis about who comes to the beach and what the product would be. We are to a point recession proof here, like Washington, DC, but there are still a lot of factors. Of course, now property is so expensive.
Mark: Have you always been interested in cooking?
Leo: My mother was a good home-style cook. We always had good food and all celebrations centered on food. I had always worked in restaurants to put myself through school. In college in order to eat, I had to cook. I realized I relaxed while I was cooking and really enjoyed it. I eventually went to the New York Restaurant School, which at the time was part of the avant-garde New School. That was my time to live in New York. I actually lived with Joyce, while going to school. Joyce and Victor were planning and working to open the Blue Moon. I was going to school to become the chef of The Back Porch.
Mark: Do you have a little known Rehoboth Beach pleasure?
Leo: It's nice that the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival and the Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival are here. It's pretty rare for a small town to have such opportunities. But, then again it's also nice to simply have friends sit on my back porch having martinis and dinner while listening to music.
Mark: If there were one thing about Rehoboth Beach you could preserve for ever what would that be?
Leo: Small town life: but, you can't put a gate up to keep people out. After all, I'm from somewhere else. We just have to figure out how to allow more people to come, while keeping controlled growth in mind. Not controlling the growth in some way might cost us why we came here in the first place.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 7 June 17, 2005