Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: A Tribute to Leo Medisch of the Back Porch Cafe

I haven’t blogged in a while, and this is a departure from my usual topics, but I just learned that someone I admired tremendously died earlier this week, and it feels important to express the huge impact that Leo Medisch had on me. Sometimes you don’t realize such a thing until it comes sharply into focus — until that person has slipped away.

Leo was the early founder and chef at The Back Porch Cafe, to this day one of my favorite restaurants in the world. Because my dad’s brother had also been one of the original founders, they were kind (crazy?) enough to hire me for a series of summer jobs that I truly had no business doing. For two summers I worked in the Back Porch Store, a gourmet take-out shop that was a couple decades ahead of its time. And the summer after the shop closed, I waited tables in the exquisitely casual, sprawling, creaky, fabulous main restaurant.

Tribute to Leo Medisch of the Back Porch Cafe

The Back Porch Cafe from Rehoboth Avenue (Creative Commons photo by ding_pression)

When I worked in the shop, Leo would come kind of sailing in, usually carrying an enormous bucket of enormous organic carrots that I had to chop or something. He had this wonderful, grand, floaty way of walking. He was usually humming or singing — my favorite was “Knock knock knockin’ on heaven’s door.” He had a lovely, Cheshire cat sort of smile and a sly sense of humor.

In my memory he kept this kind of composure, this presence, even in the outlandishly cramped, hot kitchen during dinner rush. I’d like to say that I keep my cool like this when things get crazy, but it is something I think about and aspire to. Really, Leo was the opposite of the “Hell’s Kitchen” type of chef. He definitely wasn’t pleased the time I left two lunch plates sitting under the hot lamp and reflexively dropped them, inches away from the table who’d been waiting far too long, in a crash of plates all over the back deck. But he didn’t fire me, although I probably would have fired me.

Tribute to Leo Medisch of the Back Porch Cafe

On the back deck at the Back Porch (Creative Commons photo by Susan Sharpless Smith)

Most days, he would let me write out the day’s lunch and dinner menu, which was always posted for people walking by on Rehoboth Avenue to see. When I started doing this I was 17 and I had decent handwriting, but was inordinately prone to stars and swoopy flourishes. He never criticized my style, but over time he taught me how to make it simpler, cleaner, and more elegant. (Years later when the Back Porch catered my wedding, he declared my look “simple elegance” which, coming from him, felt like the highest possible praise.)

Whenever I walked past the Porch, I always stopped to read the day’s menu — not just to contemplate the inventive offerings but to appreciate Leo’s round, stylish handwriting. Would it have been faster to just print the menus? Of course. But to me, those handwritten menus were always a soulful reminder that good things take time — quintessential Back Porch.

It also has to be said that Leo inspired me to love food and to cook. When I started working at the shop, it was like learning a foreign language. Mascarpone. Shirred eggs. Terrine. I can still remember exactly how some of the dishes tasted, and I still try to recreate them — roasted green bean salad with walnuts and lemon zest, the absurdly tasty Thai chicken curry (inspired by collaborator Siri Svasti who, I learned from reading Leo’s obituary, has since become a celebrity chef in Thailand). I also learned that Leo wasn’t a trained chef. This surprised me, but it made me appreciate him even more (not least because I have taken a decidedly nontraditional career path in my own field). Passion counts.

Tribute to Leo Medisch of the Back Porch Cafe

Brunch at the Back Porch (Creative Commons photo by grrlie)

In the big scheme of things, my summers with Leo and the Back Porch crew were a tiny slice of my life, but an incredibly vivid and formative one. They taught me about care and craft and authenticity and community. Leo, I’ll miss you, but I’ll never forget you. I hope you’re knockin’ on heaven’s door.

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