The romance of food and drink can make sparks fly, even at a brewpub—and even when one paramour cleans fermentation vats while the other waits tables. Steve Corry was working as a brewer at San Francisco Brewing Company in the mid-1990s, when he met the woman who would become his wife and business partner, Michelle, then fresh out of college and collecting tips in the taproom. By the time they’d married, a few years later, the Corrys were hatching plans that would lead them across the country to open a place of their own. The realization of that dream, Five Fifty-Five, is now a 13-year-old Portland, Maine, fine-dining institution, still helmed by Michelle in the dining room and Steve in the kitchen. The couple has garnered accolades for years, including a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence since 2015, for Michelle’s 410-selection list. But it wasn’t always an easy path to success.
The brewer would remake himself as a chef, and, when the idea of a Corry-owned brewpub fell through, the onetime waitress would learn wine. After stints at acclaimed Napa wine-and-food destinations like Domaine Chandon (Steve) and the French Laundry (Michelle), the Corrys moved back east to be closer to family, eventually rolling the dice on a fixer-upper space with an apartment lofted above it, in what was then a “pretty sketchy, at best,” part of Portland, as Michelle puts it. Five Fifty-Five opened its doors in 2003, with Steve, now 47, as executive chef and Michelle, 43, as wine director and virtuoso host; it would soon be recognized as a leading presence in locavore dining and first-rate hospitality in the city. Two other Corry-owned restaurants, French bistro Petite Jacqueline and café Portland Patisserie, have followed. Editorial assistant Lexi Williams spoke to the duo about the development of Maine’s dining scene, how they get creative with food and wine, and what’s it’s like to successfully juggle one marriage, two children and three restaurants.
Wine Spectator: You opted for Portland over Boston. What was the city’s dining scene like when you first arrived, and how has it changed over the years?
Michelle Corry: There wasn’t much going on. We were a little nervous about doing fine dining in Portland. But I do remember one night talking about [what our restaurant would be like], [dining] out, looking around and thinking, “Oh my gosh, there’s a bottle of wine on every table—we’re going to make a wine restaurant!” Even then, people liked wine in Portland, and that bolstered us a little bit.
Steve Corry: It was pretty much lobster rolls and chowder. In our first seven years we saw the farm-to-table movement really catching on, but everyone was jumping on that, so restaurants had almost identical menus. Now, we’re finally getting there as far as diversity—we have Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Asian.
WS: Do you think the fact that you’re a family-owned and -run operation gives you any kind of advantage?
MC: The customers love the fact that there is an owner in the kitchen or an owner on the floor. I think they feel like we care that much more.
SC: It definitely gives us a leg up. For one, we are holding down the expensive positions in the restaurant, so we’re not paying someone else to do it. I also think the staff appreciates that we’re here, and I think the customers love it. Michelle just remembers every face, every name and every drink that they have. And they come back for that.
WS: What is it like to partner so closely with your spouse in business?
SC: So many people say, “How can you possibly work that much together and not kill one another?” One, we get along very well together, and two, it’s a big restaurant! We don’t see a lot of each other during the day, and at night, Michelle is out on the floor with the customers and I’m in the kitchen with the staff. Also, we know when not to upset one another. It’s like we’re playing on the same soccer team, if you will: You just know where the other one is at all times—mentally and physically.
MC: I think, too, it’s a lot like raising kids. You have to be on the same page, and you have to be in agreement in front of all the children. If you don’t agree on something, you can discuss it behind closed doors, but in front of everyone, you support one another. Respecting each other is huge, and the staff sees that. Whether we agree on [something] or not, we know the endgame is to make the customer happy and to make the restaurant successful.
WS: Do you have a favorite pairing at the restaurant right now?
MC: At the moment, we have a duck liver pâté with a local husk cherry jam that people are crazy over. And we like to match that with a Sauternes, which everyone thinks is strange to do in the middle of the meal, but I think Sauternes has some beautiful acidity, so to pair that with the jam, pistachios, pickled onion and homemade brioche is just out of this world. And I love it because it gets guests a little bit out of their comfort zone.
WS: How do you collaborate on your food and wine decisions?
MC: It’s just a lot of talking back and forth. It’s not necessarily formal, because we sit down every night and eat dinner together. It’s more of a constant conversation of what we can do to make things better every time, and after [nearly] 14 years at Five Fifty-Five, we need to make it exciting for ourselves, too.
WS: What’s it like raising children while maintaining the success of three restaurants?
MC: We have two boys, Seamus and Finnigan. They’re present in the restaurant a lot. They’ll sit in the office or get entertained by the pastry chef.
SC: And they’re quite comfortable there, too. The kitchen is wide open and there’s a counter in front of it, so [one day], they climbed up, and the chef de cuisine asked them if they wanted anything to eat. And Seamus, our 9-year-old, says, “I would like some oysters and some cheese, please.” So the chef cracked up four oysters, sliced up a big block of cheese, tears a baguette in half. And the kitchen staff was just like, “Who are these kids? Even we don’t eat oysters!” The kids really have grown up in this food culture.