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Thursday, June 1, 2023

The Cat Who May Kill Horses Restaurant in Los Angeles

Portrait of Will Aghajanian at Horses before it opened in 2021.

Will Aghajanian at Horses earlier than it opened in 2021.
Photograph: Fortunate Tennyson

This text was featured in One Nice Story, New York’s studying advice e-newsletter. Enroll right here to get it nightly.

Final Halloween, the L.A. restaurant Horses threw a celebration for its workers. After some time, a few of the group piled into Ubers and headed to a bar, nonetheless in costume, for a nightcap. Will Aghajanian, the restaurant’s chef and co-founder, got here alongside. And he was saying some unsettling issues, in line with one one that was there. Elizabeth Johnson, his spouse and the restaurant’s different co-founder, had been coming into Horses much less incessantly, and the workers had gotten the impression that one thing was occurring. Now, Aghajanian appeared to be revealing particulars to considered one of his workers who had labored with him on and off at a collection of eating places. “Liz thinks I killed the cat,” he mentioned. “And so what if I did?” Gossip about Aghajanian’s feedback unfold slowly among the many tight-knit workers. Just a few days later, “I used to be requested like, ‘Hey, are you aware about this cat factor?’” says Krizia Villaflor, a chef at Horses who’d labored with the couple for greater than six years at a collection of eating places. “I used to be like, ‘Oh, wow, he spilled the beans on himself.’”

Will Aghajanian, 31, and Liz Johnson, 32, opened Horses in 2021 within the former Ye Coach & Horses House with an interesting Yves Klein–blue façade and a fastidiously maintained Previous Hollywood tavern aesthetic, besides with impressionistic work by Kacper Abolik on the partitions. The celebrities got here nearly instantly, then so reliably that mentions of the restaurant started popping up on DeuxMoi. It quickly turned subsequent to not possible to get a reservation, contemplating the celebrities, the individuals following the celebrities, and the truly wonderful opinions. (“I don’t need to be that one that recommends the hen,” wrote Tejal Rao within the New York Instances, “particularly not right here, at a restaurant you’ll possible wait months or weeks to get into — a bit much less, possibly, when you can keep a wholesome working relationship with Resy’s ‘notify’ button.”)

On November 1, Johnson filed for a restraining order in opposition to Aghajanian in Los Angeles County Superior Court docket. She accused Aghajanian of bodily and emotionally abusing her for years and described the identical cat killing he’d allegedly introduced up on the celebration — in plain, grotesque element. “I caught Will violently shaking the cat late at evening, and he died the subsequent day. Will put the lifeless cat within the trash, and insisted on holding it in the home,” she wrote. She requested the courtroom to ban Aghajanian from coming to work or the home they owned collectively in Los Angeles. “I used to be devastated that he killed our kitten and it made me extremely fearful for my security and the protection of our three canines.” Extra disturbingly, she wrote that it wasn’t the primary animal he’d abused. The truth is, she claimed, the cat was considered one of “​​as much as 14 animals that I do know.”

Two months after Johnson filed her petition with the courtroom, Aghajanian filed his personal. He wasn’t the one who had abused their animals, he wrote: Johnson was. And Johnson wasn’t the abuse sufferer: He was. He feared for his life and the lifetime of their present pets. “Liz has abused animals and our pets,” he wrote. “I’m terrified that Liz will damage or kill our pets. In Liz’s DVTRO” — home violence short-term restraining order — “she falsely accuses me of doing issues she has finished, or that she has threatened to do to me and my pets. Whereas we had been collectively, Liz informed me that she grew up in a family the place her father would catch stay squirrels in a cage, and drown them in a trash can stuffed with water — she bragged about this repeatedly.” (A supply near Johnson says that is unfaithful.)

He included screenshots of texts the place she threatened to kill their canine Pancho and one other, from 2018, the place she wrote, “If I get well-known will anybody ever discover out about pancskes [sic] or the cats” — a reference to the deaths of a collection of pet cats the couple adopted through the years. (“No,” he wrote again. “Love you.”)

The L.A. chef neighborhood, the New York chef neighborhood, 1,000,000 group chats, and, ultimately, Twitter and even DeuxMoi (a cat-killer chef — two cat-killer cooks? — at considered one of their favourite “should go to” eating places?!) caught on to the story, and the L.A. Instances printed the very first information story on the twin filings on Could 17. I’ve spent the previous two weeks speaking to 22 servers, cooks, maître d’s, and restaurant homeowners who’ve labored with the couple over the previous decade. Although Johnson’s and Aghajanian’s tales straight battle, what has emerged is an image of a disturbing relationship, throughout which a couple of cat inexplicably died.

Aghajanian and Johnson met whereas working as interns at Noma in Copenhagen. By 2013, they had been engaged and determined to maneuver again to New York, the place they labored their manner via a collection of eating places — Aghajanian just a few years at Per Se, Johnson at David Chang’s Má Pêche. In 2015, they took over the kitchen at a tiny French restaurant on Sullivan Avenue referred to as Mimi. The next 12 months, GQ named it one of many nation’s finest new eating places and Johnson, who was the general public face of the kitchen, was praised by the New York Instances for her “clear and private imaginative and prescient of French meals as a celebration of urge for food, an event to eat with pleasure and lust.” (Highlights included a complete duck set ablaze within the eating room and her showstopping lamb, “cooked till the fats melted into the delicate pink flesh.”)

At first, says a supply near Mimi, Aghajanian “was very amiable.” However former workers say it didn’t take lengthy earlier than he was blowing up at co-workers over perceived slights. He appeared to be on an particularly brief fuse along with his spouse. He “actually simply verbally abused her,” says Adina Halpern, who labored as a sous-chef on the time. As soon as, she noticed him burn Johnson with a pair of sizzling tongs. (In his submitting, Aghajanian claimed Johnson truly burned him within the kitchen at Mimi: “Liz overcooked the hen, turned enraged at me as we talked about it, and put a steel spatula on the recent oily griddle, then pushed it in opposition to my forearm, severely burning it, and leaving a scar,” he wrote, attaching a photograph of a scar on his arm. An in depth pal of his, who began working with him at Per Se, Samuel Burchett, says he noticed the scar, too, and that it didn’t appear to be a cooking burn. “He informed me that Liz bought super-angry at him over some arbitrary factor,” then took a spoon, held it in opposition to a fryer, and burned him deliberately.)

Former Mimi workers say Aghajanian usually appeared insulted that he was anticipated to arrange household meal for the workers, the usual at any buzzy Manhattan restaurant. Sometimes, household meal is one thing hearty and comforting that staff can eat earlier than a busy service. As a substitute, Aghajanian usually served disgusting dishes, says Halpern. She remembers an evening when Aghajanian was cleansing monkfish liver: “He took all of the worms from the monkfish liver and took sheep’s liver and put it via a grinder,” she says, then served that mixture brusquely to the group. One other time he provided workers fish carcasses blended with water. Aghajanian denies serving fish worms in a workers meal. He says, “I might use trims of meat and fish as a result of they had been working with a decent finances and the workers at Mimi had been by no means blissful until they’d good cuts of meat.” Nonetheless, the workers usually discovered the household meals so inedible that administration would purchase them pizza as an alternative.

Usually, Aghajanian’s method to animals left some co-workers unsettled. On a couple of event, he insisted on shopping for stay turtles and butchering them himself. “We had been watching him do it, and there was one thing form of bizarre — a scarcity of empathy,” says one one that labored on the restaurant.

Then there was the state of affairs with the cats. “There was one occasion the place I bear in mind they got here in to work and so they had been like, ‘We’re gonna get a cat,’” says somebody who was working on the restaurant. Shortly after, the couple informed individuals on the restaurant that the kitten had died: They shared that they believed it had eaten some form of rat poison. Quickly after, they adopted one other cat. That one died too. So did a 3rd one. There have been no clear explanations for these deaths. “It was like they’d get a kitten after which like two weeks later that kitten would die. After which they adopted one other kitten two weeks after that. After which that one died. After which after the third cat. We had been form of like, Why are all of the cats dying?” says somebody who labored with the couple on the time. “Like, What’s occurring?

“I bear in mind telling them like, ‘That is getting bizarre,’” says one other one that labored with them on the time. “And like, ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t hold making an attempt to get cats.’”

Solely a 12 months after beginning at Mimi, sources near the restaurant say, the couple turned not possible to proceed working with. Aghajanian bought into an altercation with a bartender sooner or later; that evening, he dumped espresso grounds behind the bar and threw round menus, unfastened paper, and staplers. Ultimately, Aghajanian and Johnson left; the explanations for his or her departure had been stored beneath wraps by homeowners Louis Levy and Evan and Daniel Bennett. The 2 cooks moved to Los Angeles, the place Johnson labored on the standard Freedman’s and Aghajanian labored at Vespertine. However quickly after, a brand new alternative got here round: In early 2019, they began jobs at Nashville’s Michelin-starred tasting counter, the Catbird Seat.

At first, issues at Catbird appeared to be going effectively, says David Maihle, a chef who joined the restaurant not lengthy after the couple. Just a few months in, although, his co-workers seen a darkish edge to Aghajanian. Michael Kline, who labored as a dishwasher at Catbird on the time, says that when, “he got here into the dish room. And it was simply me and him. And the one phrases out of his mouth had been, ‘I feel Hitler had some fairly good concepts.’ After which he walked out.” A number of individuals talked about Aghajanian making racially derisive feedback towards Korean individuals. As soon as, Villaflor, who went with the couple to Catbird, heard him saying, “Koreans are the soiled variations of Japanese individuals.” (Aghajanian denies each remarks. “I’m Armenian,” he mentioned. “In Armenia, my great-grandfather died within the genocide Hitler primarily based his off of.” So far as his emotions towards Koreans, “I’ve mentioned that I really like Japanese meals however choose Korean meals once I’m tipsy. It’s spicier.”)

Within the kitchen, Aghajanian started to make his underlings uncomfortable along with his method to food-safety protocol. He informed his cooks that the one allergic reactions that exist are shellfish and nuts and insisted they ignore different allergic reactions that clients talked about. Maihle says he’d secretly purchase gluten-free flour to make bread for purchasers with a gluten allergy, though he’d been requested to make use of common flour. One other time, Maihle says, a field of crabs arrived that had been improperly shipped. “The temperature of the field was 80 levels,” Maihle says. “I used to be like, ‘Dude, we will’t serve these. They’re all lifeless. They’re all heat. Like, there’s micro organism on these. We’re simply gonna take it off the menu for tonight.’” However Aghajanian insisted that the crabs could possibly be served. When Maihle tried to object once more, he says Aghajanian despatched him dwelling.

One other time, Aghajanian introduced in a case of frozen white rabbit heads. “We’re gonna have a bunch undertaking,” he informed his workers, Maihle says. “‘We’re going to be slicing the ears off of those rabbit heads and stripping away the cartilage. After which we need to hack into their skulls and take their brains out with out damaging them.’ After some time, I used to be like, Okay, I’m finished with this. So I broke off from the undertaking. And he mentioned, ‘Okay. I simply needed to see how lengthy everybody would do that for.’”

And once more, there was a disappearing cat. In June 2019, in line with a number of Catbird workers, Aghajanian and Johnson informed colleagues they’d adopted a brand new kitten. This appeared particularly odd to Maihle, since Aghajanian had apparently expressed a basic distaste for cats. “‘Cats suck,’” he informed the chef as soon as. “He was very open about that,” says Villaflor, noting that he expressed the sentiment on a number of events through the years. “He simply didn’t like cats.”

Inside weeks of Aghajanian and Johnson’s adopting the kitten, it was lifeless. Co-workers heard that they’d left the three-week-old kitten alone in a bed room with one of many couple’s canines and after they got here dwelling it was having bother respiratory. Aghajanian denies that it was left alone — he says that Johnson was within the room and “needed to introduce this very younger kitten to our canine. This encounter apparently scared the kitten a lot that it died.” Later at work, when a co-worker expressed sympathy, Aghajanian appeared chilly. “It’s tremendous, cats simply die,” he allegedly responded.

Aghajanian usually berated his spouse at work, in line with a number of sources. “I heard Will verbally assault Liz,” says Kline, “calling her a ‘cunt,’ or saying ‘You’re a chunk of shit, you’re nugatory.’” In response to Villaflor, “throughout service, he would come as much as her, whisper issues like, ‘This isn’t your restaurant.’ Or, ‘I created this.’ Or, ‘You’re nothing, you possibly can’t cook dinner.’ Or, ‘You’re being a bitch. All people hates you.’” A number of individuals say that Johnson would insult Aghajanian and yell at him. This consists of his shut pal Burchett, who says he by no means noticed any of the conduct others ascribed to Aghajanian — the abuse, the rabbit heads, the racism. “You don’t spend your life working for the best cooks on the planet fairly actually, from René [Redzepi], to [Eric] Ziebold, Eli Kaimeh, Thomas Keller, the record goes on and on and on, and behave in that type of trend. It goes in opposition to the indoctrination that’s instilled in you while you enter into these types of temples of gastronomy,” he says.

Ultimately, as soon as once more, a number of cooks introduced their complaints — that the couple had been usually preventing within the kitchen and that Aghajanian was emotionally abusive to Johnson and workers — to the eating places homeowners, Benjamin and Max Goldberg. The brothers modified the locks, informed the couple to satisfy them exterior the restaurant, had them hand over their kitchen instruments, and fired them on the spot. (“The Catbird Seat has zero-tolerance for any misconduct and takes fast motion if violations happen,” a spokesperson for the restaurant’s homeowners wrote in a press release.)

Liz Johnson and Will Aghajanian at Horses in 2021.
Photograph: Fortunate Tennyson

In 2021, Johnson and Aghajanian moved to Los Angeles, the place they began Horses. The restaurant was an instantaneous hit, capitalizing on the post-COVID need for eating places that had been approachable and felt like a celebration. And the connection between the couple appeared marginally higher, in line with individuals who labored with them, in comparison with the out-in-the-open screaming matches elsewhere. This may need had one thing to do with the truth that issues had been going extraordinarily effectively for them: They had been in talks to open each a Chinese language restaurant close to Horses and a restaurant in New York to be referred to as Froggy’s.

The success additionally meant an rising quantity of strain. The couple was making an attempt to open two new eating places on reverse sides of the nation whereas managing operations at Horses. In April, the New York Instances revealed that Thomas Carter, who had left Estela following harassment accusations, can be concerned in Froggy’s. Then, on August 25, Eater printed a narrative revealing that the disgraced proprietor of the Noticed Pig, Ken Friedman, had been a silent accomplice within the founding of Horses (although they’ve denied Friedman had any involvement). “There was a little bit little bit of unraveling occurring,” Villaflor says.

Then got here the collection of occasions that introduced the whole lot to a head. In September, a pal gave the couple the kitten Johnson would later say Aghajanian shook to demise. Round that point, she started to appear much less usually within the kitchen — the workers didn’t know why or the place she was. Till that Halloween celebration. Johnson didn’t go, however Aghajanian did. He informed that worker that he thought Johnson believed he’d killed their cat — then allegedly elaborated additional on the state of affairs. “He defined that he and his spouse had a collection of cats in New York and Los Angeles that will simply randomly die and that he thought his spouse suspected him of killing them,” the worker says. “So I requested, ‘Effectively, what did occur to your cat?’ He mentioned ‘I don’t know. The canines had been preventing with it, and bit it, and it simply died.’ So I jokingly mentioned, ‘Effectively, you killed the cat, proper? Like, to place it out of its distress?’ And he mentioned, “Effectively, like, yeah, I squeezed it till it stopped respiratory.’

The subsequent day, the worker noticed Aghajanian within the locker room on the restaurant. As soon as once more, she says, he began confiding in her. “He was saying issues like, ‘I don’t know when Liz is gonna come again. I don’t know what’s occurring. I feel she thinks that I killed the cat.’ And I used to be like, ‘However you probably did kill the cat.’ And he was like, ‘No, I didn’t.’ I bear in mind turning round and taking a look at him and saying, ‘You informed me yesterday that you just killed the cat. Did you overlook that? You informed me that.’ And he mentioned, ‘Okay, yeah, I killed the cat. So what? She shouldn’t go away me simply because I killed the cat.’” The worker recounted this dialog to a few co-workers inside days. (“I didn’t squeeze the cat till it stopped respiratory, nor did I declare that I had,” says Aghajanian in response to this.)

After Johnson’s restraining order was filed, it turned tough for Aghajanian to work on the restaurant — they had been meant to keep up a ten-foot distance. So she sat the workers down and informed them her facet of the story with out going into an excessive amount of element — simply that she felt she’d been abused within the relationship. There have been tears throughout, a supply near Johnson mentioned. Quickly after, Aghajanian appeared at Horses. The prep workers had been preparing for dinner, and Aghajanian tried to start out cooking as standard. The workers walked out as a present of assist for Johnson. “Not one of the meals was prepped, so that they couldn’t open in time,” the supply mentioned. “Horses needed to shut for that evening.” Stephen Mild, the principle investor behind Horses, referred to as Aghajanian and informed him that if the workers wasn’t going to work with him, he’d have to take a go away.

Aghajanian continued to make unannounced appearances across the restaurant over the subsequent few weeks, typically even sleeping within the workers lockers in a single day, says Villaflor. “We’re identical to, ‘Effectively, he’s technically nonetheless on payroll, so we will’t actually name the police.” As soon as, a staffer discovered him hiding in a dumpster close to the restaurant and snapped a photograph.

Because the story leaked out, Aghajanian has targeted on making the case that he’s not a cat killer and that Johnson manufactured the entire story in an try and smear his fame. He’s employed a publicist, who informed me his facet of the story. “Their canine bit the cat’s head and was not taken to the vet as a result of the subsequent day its head seemed higher. One other day or two after that, Liz awoke at 3 a.m. and screeched that she thought the kitten was lifeless. Will picked it up and checked it and it was alive. They went again to sleep. Within the morning, Liz woke Will up and shouted once more that she thought the cat was lifeless. Will picked it up once more, cradled it, shook it a little bit, and mentioned one thing like, ‘C’mon buddy, are you okay?’ but it surely was actually, by then, lifeless. He put it within the trash as a result of it could entice coyotes if it was put exterior, and if it was buried exterior, their canines would scent it and dig it up. It was disposed of as soon as trash-pickup day arrived, a day or two later.” On Could nineteenth, he filed a lawsuit in opposition to Johnson alleging breach of fiduciary obligation and different prices associated to their partnership in Horses — and included texts Johnson despatched him days after the cat died. “I’m unhappy about kitten,” she wrote in a single, time-stamped October 12, per week after she alleged that he killed it. “Ought to have taken him to the vet.” She additionally instructed getting a brand new canine.

Johnson sticks by the story she wrote in her submitting. It reads: “the kitten wouldn’t go close to Will after a pair days — Will mentioned he didn’t like him and began calling him ‘Coyote Bait,’ mentioned, ‘We had been going to feed him to the coyotes.’ At some point, I used to be within the bathe once I heard a really loud yelp and got here out to seek out the kitten with large lacerations and an abscess on its head. Will claimed the canine attacked him, and I believed Will, however Will forbade me from taking him to the vet. I used to be suspicious, so I requested Will to avoid him.” Just a few days later, she wrote, she got here dwelling to seek out her husband shaking the cat, which died the subsequent day. “I used to be the sufferer of psychological and psychological abuse, so I believed Will when he denied killing these animals. He would insist I used to be loopy for questioning him and inform me to maintain quiet. I now understand Will was torturing and killing these animals.” 

Neither Johnson nor Aghajanian had been prepared to speak to me, however each responded via representatives. Aghajanian denies most the whole lot his former colleagues mentioned about him — expressing distaste for cats within the first place and burning, hurting, or verbally abusing Johnson. He emphatically denies serving improperly shipped crabs and ignoring buyer allergic reactions and says that whereas he did have workers put together rabbit heads (“as a result of he believes in sustainability”), he didn’t do it as an train to make workers uncomfortable. And he says he by no means slept in a single day at Horses or hid in a dumpster. In the meantime, Johnson wasn’t prepared to elaborate on what occurred to the opposite 13 animals she claimed in her submitting he’d tortured. I used to be not capable of verify that the couple ever had something near 14 pets die over the course of their relationship. The truth is, the variety of cats that died beneath the couple’s care stays considerably of a thriller. In response to Aghajanian, “barely greater than two cats died” at Mimi and “a complete of two cats that Will and Liz had died inside a five-year interval, one in 2017 in Nashville, the opposite in 2022 in Los Angeles.”

Now, Johnson appears to be making an attempt to place herself because the solo face of Horses, although Aghajanian remains to be technically on the payroll. She texted the restaurant’s press consultant to counsel they go “full courtroom press on Liz Johnson” —  together with reserving an look on The Tonight Present With Jimmy Fallon; the host loved Horses when he dined there, she wrote in a textual content message. “I simply have to get myself in entrance of the general public and present that I’m an actual, likable, regular individual.” In a press release to New York, Johnson’s legal professional wrote: “It’s and has at all times been Liz’s  intention to keep up the privateness of this extraordinarily private state of affairs. Sadly, what we are actually witnessing publicly play out displays what she alleges Mr. Aghajanian has finished behind closed doorways for years: try and train management over her via disgrace, humiliation, and confusion.”

In the meantime, Aghajanian is in Thailand. Just lately, in line with Burchett, the 2 had been speaking on the cellphone. “And he was sitting there and he mentioned, ‘Oh, look, a stray cat got here up and simply sat in my lap,’” Burchett recollects. “And we had a chuckle about it. And he’s like, ‘I’m sitting right here petting a stray cat whereas all of this is happening.’”

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