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The exterior of Marlena restaurant.
Chefs David and Serena Fisher opened Marlena in 2020 during the height of the pandemic.
Patricia Chang

Here’s Why the Chef-Couple Who Made Marlena a Michelin-Starred Destination Left the Restaurant

On June 30, chefs David and Serena Fisher announced they would be leaving Marlena due to conflicts with the restaurant’s owner

Lauren Saria is the editor of Eater SF and has been writing about food, drinks, and restaurants for more than a decade.

Long before Marlena became one of San Francisco’s most well-regarded restaurants, it was just an idea in chef David Fisher’s mind. “I had the name ‘Marlena’ written on a piece of paper years ago,” he says. “I wanted something special that I could pour some energy into.” And when the restaurant opened in late 2020, he did.

With his wife and pastry chef Serena Chow Fisher by his side, David turned the restaurant into a Michelin-starred destination. The couple got help from a roster of family and friends, including Serena’s dad, who deep cleaned the space with them during the early days of the pandemic, and the friend who took Serena’s vision for the flower logo and turned it into reality. They and their community poured time and energy into the restaurant because it was always a deeply personal project, in part because the name pays homage to David’s late mother. “We would do as much as we could because we were dedicated to making this dream happen,” Serena says.

A man and a woman in navy shirts stand together outside a building.
David Fisher and Serena Chow Fisher
Patricia Chang

But on Friday, June 30, the dream came to an end. In a post on Instagram, the couple announced they’d be leaving Marlena at the end of that night’s dinner service and pivoting to focus on their upcoming restaurant, 7 Adams, with business partner and former Marlena consultant Ryan Cole.

Now the couple explains that what seemed like an abrupt end to their time at Marlena was actually the culmination of a months-long struggle with owner Stephan Roulland. There was no single issue that drove the couple to leave, but rather a prolonged deterioration of the business relationship. “It was the trust,” Serena says. “It got to the point where it was like, what are we doing?”

They say the first sign of trouble came in April 2022, when the couple announced plans to temporarily close the restaurant. At the time, the Fishers told the public they hoped to update the space and reopen by the summer; but that was only part of the story. Now they say their decision to renovate Marlena’s dining room was part of a larger plan that impacted both the restaurant and the building that Roulland also owns. The couple wanted to give the restaurant space a full update — a plan they had hoped to accomplish before Marlena opened but weren’t able to do because of the pandemic. They also planned to make the restaurant’s small bathroom ADA-compliant.

The goal was for Marlena to close for a tight six-week renovation while Roulland also renovated the residential space upstairs. Both projects were set to happen simultaneously to avoid forcing the restaurant to close twice. “But he didn’t uphold his end of the bargain,” Cole says.

The Fishers and Cole say delays on Roulland’s portion of the project resulted in Marlena being closed for much longer than six weeks. In an email to Eater SF, however, Roulland says it wasn’t the residential renovations that affected the restaurant but rather a seismic retrofitting that was “ necessary for the building’s safety.” Whatever the reason, the restaurant ended up closed for a total of five months during which the couple continued to pay rent on the 300 Precita Avenue space. For a portion of the time, they operated a pop-up out of a hotel near Union Square, but the couple and Cole say it was never profitable.

In early 2023, Roulland approached the couple about renegotiating their employment contracts. As restaurant employees, not owners, the couple’s compensation included what they describe as modest base salaries and additional percentages based on Marlena’s revenue and profits. But Roulland proposed changing the structure of the contract in a way that would decrease the couple’s profit share while increasing their rent. Roulland claimed the rent hike would help spread out the cost of the restaurant’s renovations over six years. “He decreased the amount of profits we would be getting, which, in the end, decreased our overall salary,” David says.

After weeks of back and forth, both David and Serena ended up signing new contracts, which the couple says they felt pressured to do despite the fact that the new contracts resulted in them making less. “Mind you, while we were under negotiation of these contracts we were only making our base salary,” David says. “So we were starting to hurt for money.”

After just four months of the new business arrangement, on May 18, the couple says they gave their notice to Roulland: their last day as chefs of Marlena restaurant would be on July 1. Roulland accepted the notice but asked them if they’d consider staying on longer. The couple hoped to reach a deal that would see them continue working at the restaurant for a few weeks more in exchange for the ability to take the name with them — to use either for their upcoming project or down the line — but by June 30 David and Serena say they’d reached a breaking point. “I’m tired of making money for him,” David says. “It was really draining emotionally and physically.”

In an email statement to Eater SF on Thursday, Roulland expressed thanks to David and Serena for their “invaluable contributions during their tenure at Marlena.” The restaurant will close for the month of July, the statement confirms, and will reopen in August under a new chef who has yet to be named. “Rest assured, this pause will pave the way for the next phase of our cherished French bouillon-style restaurant,” the statement reads in part. Roulland did not directly answer whether or not staff is being paid while Marlena is closed. “We are working to support all of our Marlena employees as best as possible during this transition and wish to keep them on into our next chapter,” he wrote in an email.

David says they hope to reopen a restaurant under the Marlena name someday — and make it even better than before. “I want people to know that Serena and I both love this restaurant,” he says. “We worked very hard to make it as successful as it was and, realistically, I would love the name back so we can open the restaurant to its highest level.”

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