One year after his death, Leo Medisch remains a strong presence along the culinary coast
On Aug. 21, 2013, coastal Delaware’s restaurant community was saddened to learn that Leo Medisch, executive chef of the Back Porch Cafe in Rehoboth Beach, had died at age 60. Medisch had joined the Back Porch as a grill chef shortly after the restaurant’s opening in 1974, and over the years — as he became kitchen manager, chef and an owner — he symbolized Rehoboth’s celebrated dining scene.
But to many colleagues, friends and customers, Medisch’s talent went beyond the kitchen. Current Executive Chef Timothy McNitt, who joined the restaurant in 1997, says Medisch was “kind, gentle, funny, caring and thoughtful.” Above all, he was a friend.
McNitt, who moved to Rehoboth from Lancaster County, Pa., was hired to work in the Back Porch’s pantry to do prep work and make such items as bluefish-and-apple sausage and duck galantine. “They had a lot of trust in this country boy,” he says. “I loved every minute of it.”
Back then Medisch worked during the day, and McNitt worked at night. They didn’t interact much. But when Medisch learned that his employee’s landlord had turned him out and that McNitt was forced to sleep in a car (with his dog), he told McNitt to put the dog in Medisch’s fenced backyard and sleep at his house until McNitt could find new lodging. The temporary stay turned into the entire season, and by closing time in the fall, the chef offered his helper a room the following year if he would return to the restaurant. “I’ve been at the cafe for 18 years, and lived with Leo for 16 of them,” McNitt says.
In the Back Porch’s small, awkwardly designed kitchen, Medisch “was a dancer,” his successor recalls. “He would glide from one corner to the next with ease and be singing or laughing the whole time.” If anyone asked him how long a dish needed to cook, he would reply: “Cook it until it’s done.” In other words, until it’s “perfect.”
Medisch didn’t limit his culinary prowess to the restaurant. McNitt awoke almost every morning to his chicken stock, simmering on the stove. Medisch was known to prepare goose using the wild game a friend and hunter had left on the porch and to roast delectable meats in winter. His simple potato gratin was a delight.
Dinner parties at home were a regular occurrence. “I was in a perfect setting to learn the craft,” McNitt says. M.L. Sirichalerm Svasti, professionally known as Chef Siri McDang and a member of the Thai royal family, regularly stayed with Medisch over New Year’s. (In the 1980s, Svasti — who went by the nickname “Siri” — was executive chef alongside Medisch at the Back Porch.) From the day he arrived for the holiday until the day he left, Svasti and Medisch were in the kitchen whipping up meals, recalls McNitt, who cherishes his memories of those dinners.
Medisch faced challenges. His partner of 13 years, Tom Wilson, died in 1995 from AIDS-related complications. Medisch struggled with HIV and lung cancer. As his health declined, McNitt took over the kitchen.
Yet Medisch never lost his devotion to the Back Porch, its staff and his friends. At 11 a.m. on Aug. 21, he called McNitt to remind him to order seafood. Later that evening, McNitt was present, along with other friends and family, when Medisch passed. “He was a man of dignity,” McNitt says. “He never let the cancer beat him; he just became too exhausted to fight.”
Like his mentor, McNitt remains dedicated to providing fresh food (locally sourced when possible) presented in a creative way. “I wish to continue to provide the quality product and service that our clients expect and to keep the cafe relevant in this crazy, competitive industry,” he says. “No sitting back here.”
Medisch’s characteristic favorites regularly make appearances on the menu. Consider this golden tomato gazpacho, which lets summer flavors sing, and the Back Porch crab cake, whose shrimp mousse demonstrates Medisch’s fondness for classic French approaches.
Back Porch Crab Cake
(Makes eight 4-ounce crab cakes)
1 pound of shrimp, shells removed and deveined
4 egg whites
¾ cup of heavy cream
½ teaspoon of ground cumin
½ teaspoon of ground coriander
½ teaspoon of Madras curry powder
½ teaspoon of ground chipotle powder (substitute paprika)
1 pound of cleaned Maryland jumbo lump crabmeat
3 scallions, finely chopped
¾ tablespoon of fresh thyme
Salt and white pepper to taste
In a food processor, puree the shrimp to a smooth paste. Scrape down the bowl’s sides. Add egg whites and spices. Puree again to a smooth paste and scrape the sides. Add the cream and puree for about a minute. Scrape the sides down again and run the machine for another 30 seconds or so. Transfer the mousse to a mixing bowl.
Gently fold in the crabmeat, scallion, thyme, salt and pepper until well combined, but don’t overwork the crabmeat. Chill for at least an hour. When ready to cook, form the mix into 4-ounce cakes. (Tip: The Back Porch Cafe uses an ice cream scooper to form crab cakes or you can use wet hands.)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Add a small amount of clarified butter to an ovenproof pan. Add the crab cakes and flip once. Place them in the oven to brown and rise, which will take about eight to 12 minutes. Gently flip halfway.
(At the Back Porch, McNitt has placed the cakes atop a colorful pool of red pepper puree with fennel, preserved lemon and wild French asparagus. Serve them however you like — with tartar, cocktail sauce or simply a squeeze of lemon juice.)
Golden Tomato Gazpacho
4 pounds of yellow tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil
5 cloves of garlic
1 large red pepper
1 large green pepper
2 jalapeno peppers
2 cucumbers, peeled and seeded
1 bunch of cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Toss the tomatoes with the olive oil, garlic cloves and a small amount of salt. Roast the tomatoes in a pan in the oven until they’re caramelized and exude their juices, about 45 minutes. Puree the mix in a food processor or food mill. Strain and chill.
Finely dice the red, green and jalapeno peppers, cucumber and cilantro leaves. Add the chopped vegetables to the puree. Chill. Before serving, check to see if salt and pepper are needed. (Chilled dishes often need more salt.)
(For a pretty garnish, finely chop some peppers and cucumber until you have about a spoonful of diced vegetables for each bowl. Add cilantro and a dollop of creme fraiche.)