The chef co-owners of Hollywood hotspot Horses are escalating their battle for control of the restaurant, with Will Aghajanian taking his wife Elizabeth Johnson to court.
Aghajanian alleges in a complaint filed on Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court that Johnson is trying to oust him from their business after she cut him out of a Chinese restaurant they planned to open behind Horses, in part, by lying about animal abuse and assault allegations.
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The suit was filed after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge in May extended Johnson’s temporary restraining order against Aghajanian until June. He filed in January to divorce her, denying the allegations and saying he’s the victim of Johnson’s “long-term abuse that has occurred through our relationship.”
In the fall of 2022, around the time Johnson was initially granted a restraining order against Aghajanian, the complaint claims she started to undermine his work and authority to assume full control of the restaurant and block him from obtaining his management fees. The suit details a dysfunctional environment at Horses.
“Defendant personally told employees of Horses a number of things which she knew were not true, including that Plaintiff did not like the staff of Horses and many other false statements designed to turn the staff of Horses against Plaintiff,” reads the filing. “Defendant made these statements in order to obtain a tactical advantage in her attempts to have Plaintiff’s Management Fee paid to Defendant.”
Some of the false statements were aimed at trying to convince the other owners of Horses to oust Aghajanian from the restaurant without compensation, the complaint claims.
The alleged scheme included a “secret public relations campaign of reaching out to journalists in an attempt to get them to write stories promoting a false narrative which would aid Johnson in her hijacking of Horses and create a false context by which she could seek to legitimize her unlawful ejection of plaintiff” using restaurant funds. Aghajanian alleges she lied to coworkers, reporters and notable figures in the food industry that he was no longer involved at Horses and would imminently be fired, with Johnson taking control of restaurant.
The alleged false statements were also aimed at ousting Aghajanian from Yu Bo & Friends, a Chinese restaurant behind Horses he and Johnson planned to open with celebrated chef Yu Bo, owner of Yu’s Family Kitchen. The suit claims she lied to Yu Bo that Aghajanian had deliberately killed their cat to hurt his reputation “so that [she] could steal Plaintiff’s interests in Horses and other ventures.”
“Defendant Johnson has made clear to Plaintiff she wants to prevent Plaintiff from ever opening any other restaurants and has therefore worked to create a false narrative which would prevent Plaintiff from obtaining new investors for a number of other business ventures,” reads the complaint.
Aghajanian later learned that Johnson had arranged with Yu Bo to replicate the business to open another under a new name using his work, ideas and designs. Funds from Horses were allegedly used to further this effort, according to the complaint.
On top of physical, emotional and financial abuse, Johnson accused Aghajanian in a petition for a temporary restraining order of “torturing and killing” up to 14 animals. She said she witnessed him “violently shaking” one of their cats until it died, at which point he insisted on keeping the corpse in the house. Johnson was granted a restraining order in May. Aghajanian, who similarly accused her of assault and animal abuse, filed to divorce her in January.
On Wednesday evening, Horses posted a message on its Instagram account that stated that Aghajanian had been on a leave of absence since November 2022 and had not been involved in the day-to-day operations of the restaurant since then. “Under the guidance of Chef Liz, our incredible front and back of house teams are working to continuously make Horses what she had always intended it to be — a place of joy and celebration. Horses has no further comments outside of this statement.”
Aghajanian and Johnson each have a 25 percent ownership interest in Horses, with three others owning the rest. They receive a monthly management fee of 10 percent of the gross revenue of the restaurant, which amounts to roughly $22,000 to $27,000, and a quarter of all profits. Aghajanian also gets a yearly salary of $180,000.
The complaint alleges breach of fiduciary duty, intentional interference with contractual relations and unfair business practices, among other claims. He seeks a court declaration barring Johnson from misusing funds.
Aghajanian alleges Johnson was working with unknown defendants whose identities he doesn’t know.
A lawyer for Johnson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
After meeting in 2011, Aghajanian and Johnson started working together three years later at Mimi’s in New York. They continued working together at different restaurants across the country for the next seven years. In 2021, they opened Horses together to critical acclaim in Hollywood where it became a clubhouse for diners from the worlds of entertainment, fashion and art. The restaurant sits in an area frequented by Hollywood’s A-list, with popular screening room Harmony Gold just a block West.
Together, they were nominated as Rising Star Chefs by the prestigious James Beard Award Foundation at their prior venture, the Catbird Seat. They were in the process of opening a New York restaurant called Froggys, according to court filings.
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