Will Aghajanian at Horses before it opened in 2021.
Photo: Lucky Tennyson
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Last Halloween, the L.A. restaurant Horses threw a party for its staff. After a while, some of the group piled into Ubers and headed to a bar, still in costume, for a nightcap. Will Aghajanian, the restaurant’s chef and co-founder, came along. And he was saying some unsettling things, according to one person who was there. Elizabeth Johnson, his wife and the restaurant’s other co-founder, had been coming into Horses less frequently, and the staff had gotten the impression that something was going on. Now, Aghajanian seemed to be revealing details to one of his employees who had worked with him on and off at a series of restaurants. “Liz thinks I killed the cat,” he said. “And so what if I did?” Gossip about Aghajanian’s comments spread slowly among the tight-knit staff. A few days later, “I was asked like, ‘Hey, do you know about this cat thing?’” says Krizia Villaflor, a chef at Horses who’d worked with the couple for more than six years at a series of restaurants. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow, he spilled the beans on himself.’”
Will Aghajanian, 31, and Liz Johnson, 32, opened Horses in 2021 in the former Ye Coach & Horses Space with an appealing Yves Klein–blue façade and a carefully maintained Old Hollywood tavern aesthetic, except with impressionistic paintings by Kacper Abolik on the walls. The celebrities came almost immediately, then so reliably that mentions of the restaurant began popping up on DeuxMoi. It soon became next to impossible to get a reservation, considering the celebrities, the people following the celebrities, and the actually excellent reviews. (“I don’t want to be that person who recommends the chicken,” wrote Tejal Rao in the New York Times, “especially not here, at a restaurant you’ll likely wait months or weeks to get into — a bit less, maybe, if you can maintain a healthy working relationship with Resy’s ‘notify’ button.”)
On November 1, Johnson filed for a restraining order against Aghajanian in Los Angeles County Superior Court. She accused Aghajanian of physically and emotionally abusing her for years and described the same cat killing he’d allegedly brought up at the party — in plain, grotesque detail. “I caught Will violently shaking the cat late at night, and he died the next day. Will put the dead cat in the trash, and insisted on keeping it in the house,” she wrote. She asked the court to ban Aghajanian from coming to work or the house they owned together in Los Angeles. “I was devastated that he killed our kitten and it made me incredibly fearful for my safety and the safety of our three dogs.” More disturbingly, she wrote that it wasn’t the first animal he’d abused. In fact, she claimed, the cat was one of “up to 14 animals that I know.”
Two months after Johnson filed her petition with the court, Aghajanian filed his own. He wasn’t the one who had abused their animals, he wrote: Johnson was. And Johnson wasn’t the abuse victim: He was. He feared for his life and the life of their current pets. “Liz has abused animals and our pets,” he wrote. “I am terrified that Liz will hurt or kill our pets. In Liz’s DVTRO” — domestic violence temporary restraining order — “she falsely accuses me of doing things she has done, or that she has threatened to do to me and my pets. While we were together, Liz told me that she grew up in a household where her father would catch live squirrels in a cage, and drown them in a trash can full of water — she bragged about this repeatedly.” (A source close to Johnson says this is untrue.)
He included screenshots of texts where she threatened to kill their dog Pancho and another, from 2018, where she wrote, “If I get famous will anyone ever find out about pancskes [sic] or the cats” — a reference to the deaths of a series of pet cats the couple adopted over the years. (“No,” he wrote back. “Love you.”)
The L.A. chef community, the New York chef community, a million group chats, and, eventually, Twitter and even DeuxMoi (a cat-killer chef — two cat-killer chefs? — at one of their favorite “must visit” restaurants?!) caught on to the story, and the L.A. Times published the first actual news story on the dual filings on May 17. I’ve spent the past two weeks talking to 22 servers, chefs, maître d’s, and restaurant owners who have worked with the couple over the past decade. Though Johnson’s and Aghajanian’s stories directly conflict, what has emerged is a picture of a disturbing relationship, during which more than one cat inexplicably died.
Aghajanian and Johnson met while working as interns at Noma in Copenhagen. By 2013, they were engaged and decided to move back to New York, where they worked their way through a series of restaurants — Aghajanian 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 Street called Mimi. The following year, GQ named it one of the country’s best new restaurants and Johnson, who was the public face of the kitchen, was praised by the New York Times for her “clear and personal vision of French food as a celebration of appetite, an occasion to eat with joy and lust.” (Highlights included a whole duck set ablaze in the dining room and her showstopping lamb, “cooked until the fat melted into the soft pink flesh.”)
At first, says a source close to Mimi, Aghajanian “was very amiable.” But former employees say it didn’t take long before he was blowing up at co-workers over perceived slights. He seemed to be on an especially short fuse with his wife. He “really just verbally abused her,” says Adina Halpern, who worked as a sous-chef at the time. Once, she saw him burn Johnson with a pair of hot tongs. (In his filing, Aghajanian claimed Johnson actually burned him in the kitchen at Mimi: “Liz overcooked the chicken, became enraged at me as we talked about it, and put a metal spatula on the hot oily griddle, then pushed it against my forearm, severely burning it, and leaving a scar,” he wrote, attaching a photo of a scar on his arm. A close friend of his, who started working with him at Per Se, Samuel Burchett, says he saw the scar, too, and that it didn’t look like a cooking burn. “He told me that Liz got super-angry at him over some arbitrary thing,” then took a spoon, held it against a fryer, and burned him intentionally.)
Former Mimi employees say Aghajanian often seemed insulted that he was expected to prepare family meal for the staff, the standard at any buzzy Manhattan restaurant. Typically, family meal is something hearty and comforting that workers can eat before a busy service. Instead, Aghajanian often served disgusting dishes, says Halpern. She remembers a night when Aghajanian was cleaning monkfish liver: “He took all the worms from the monkfish liver and took sheep’s liver and put it through a grinder,” she says, then served that combination brusquely to the group. Another time he offered staff fish carcasses blended with water. Aghajanian denies serving fish worms in a staff meal. He says, “I would use trims of meat and fish because they were working with a tight budget and the staff at Mimi were never happy unless they had perfect cuts of meat.” Still, the staff often found the family meals so inedible that management would buy them pizza instead.
In general, Aghajanian’s approach to animals left some co-workers unsettled. On more than one occasion, he insisted on buying live turtles and butchering them himself. “We were watching him do it, and there was something kind of weird — a lack of empathy,” says one person who worked at the restaurant.
Then there was the situation with the cats. “There was one instance where I remember they came in to work and they were like, ‘We’re gonna get a cat,’” says someone who was working at the restaurant. Shortly after, the couple told people at the restaurant that the kitten had died: They shared that they believed it had eaten some kind of rat poison. Soon after, they adopted another cat. That one died too. So did a third one. There were no clear explanations for those deaths. “It was like they’d get a kitten and then like two weeks later that kitten would die. And then they adopted another kitten two weeks after that. And then that one died. And then after the third cat. We were kind of like, Why are all the cats dying?” says someone who worked with the couple at the time. “Like, What’s going on?”
“I remember telling them like, ‘This is getting weird,’” says another person who worked with them at the time. “And like, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t keep trying to get cats.’”
Only a year after starting at Mimi, sources close to the restaurant say, the couple became impossible to continue working with. Aghajanian got into an altercation with a bartender one day; that night, he dumped coffee grounds behind the bar and threw around menus, loose paper, and staplers. Eventually, Aghajanian and Johnson left; the reasons for their departure were kept under wraps by owners Louis Levy and Evan and Daniel Bennett. The two chefs moved to Los Angeles, where Johnson worked at the popular Freedman’s and Aghajanian worked at Vespertine. But soon after, a new opportunity came around: In early 2019, they started jobs at Nashville’s Michelin-starred tasting counter, the Catbird Seat.
At first, things at Catbird seemed to be going well, says David Maihle, a chef who joined the restaurant not long after the couple. A few months in, though, his co-workers noticed a dark edge to Aghajanian. Michael Kline, who worked as a dishwasher at Catbird at the time, says that once, “he came into the dish room. And it was just me and him. And the only words out of his mouth were, ‘I think Hitler had some pretty good ideas.’ And then he walked out.” Multiple people mentioned Aghajanian making racially derisive comments toward Korean people. Once, Villaflor, who went with the couple to Catbird, heard him saying, “Koreans are the dirty versions of Japanese people.” (Aghajanian denies both remarks. “I am Armenian,” he said. “In Armenia, my great-grandfather died in the genocide Hitler based his off of.” As far as his feelings toward Koreans, “I’ve said that I love Japanese food but prefer Korean food when I’m tipsy. It’s spicier.”)
In the kitchen, Aghajanian began to make his underlings uncomfortable with his approach to food-safety protocol. He told his chefs that the only allergies that exist are shellfish and nuts and insisted they ignore other allergies that customers mentioned. Maihle says he’d secretly buy gluten-free flour to make bread for customers with a gluten allergy, even though he’d been asked to use regular flour. Another time, Maihle says, a box of crabs arrived that had been improperly shipped. “The temperature of the box was 80 degrees,” Maihle says. “I was like, ‘Dude, we can’t serve these. They’re all dead. They’re all warm. Like, there’s bacteria on these. We’re just gonna take it off the menu for tonight.’” But Aghajanian insisted that the crabs could be served. When Maihle tried to object again, he says Aghajanian sent him home.
Another time, Aghajanian brought in a case of frozen white rabbit heads. “We’re gonna have a group project,” he told his staff, Maihle says. “‘We’re going to be cutting the ears off of these rabbit heads and stripping away the cartilage. And then we want to hack into their skulls and take their brains out without damaging them.’ After a while, I was like, Okay, I’m done with this. So I broke off from the project. And he said, ‘Okay. I just wanted to see how long everyone would do this for.’”
And again, there was a disappearing cat. In June 2019, according to multiple Catbird employees, Aghajanian and Johnson told colleagues they had adopted a new kitten. This seemed especially odd to Maihle, since Aghajanian had apparently expressed a general distaste for cats. “‘Cats suck,’” he told the chef once. “He was very open about that,” says Villaflor, noting that he expressed the sentiment on multiple occasions over the years. “He just didn’t like cats.”
Within weeks of Aghajanian and Johnson’s adopting the kitten, it was dead. Co-workers heard that they had left the three-week-old kitten alone in a bedroom with one of the couple’s dogs and when they came home it was having trouble breathing. Aghajanian denies that it was left alone — he says that Johnson was in the room and “wanted to introduce this very young kitten to our dog. This encounter apparently scared the kitten so much that it died.” Later at work, when a co-worker expressed sympathy, Aghajanian seemed cold. “It’s fine, cats just die,” he allegedly responded.
Aghajanian often berated his wife at work, according to multiple sources. “I heard Will verbally assault Liz,” says Kline, “calling her a ‘cunt,’ or saying ‘You’re a piece of shit, you’re worthless.’” According to Villaflor, “during service, he would come up to her, whisper things like, ‘This isn’t your restaurant.’ Or, ‘I created this.’ Or, ‘You’re nothing, you can’t cook.’ Or, ‘You’re being a bitch. Everybody hates you.’” Several people say that Johnson would insult Aghajanian and yell at him. This includes his close friend Burchett, who says he never saw any of the behavior others ascribed to Aghajanian — the abuse, the rabbit heads, the racism. “You don’t spend your life working for the greatest chefs in the world quite literally, from René [Redzepi], to [Eric] Ziebold, Eli Kaimeh, Thomas Keller, the list goes on and on and on, and behave in that sort of fashion. It goes against the indoctrination that is instilled in you when you enter into those sorts of temples of gastronomy,” he says.
Eventually, once again, several chefs brought their complaints — that the couple were often fighting in the kitchen and that Aghajanian was emotionally abusive to Johnson and employees — to the restaurants owners, Benjamin and Max Goldberg. The brothers changed the locks, told the couple to meet them outside the restaurant, had them hand over their kitchen tools, and fired them on the spot. (“The Catbird Seat has zero-tolerance for any misconduct and takes immediate action if violations occur,” a spokesperson for the restaurant’s owners wrote in a statement.)
Liz Johnson and Will Aghajanian at Horses in 2021.
Photo: Lucky Tennyson
In 2021, Johnson and Aghajanian moved to Los Angeles, where they started Horses. The restaurant was an instant hit, capitalizing on the post-COVID desire for restaurants that were approachable and felt like a party. And the relationship between the couple seemed marginally better, according to people who worked with them, compared to the out-in-the-open screaming matches elsewhere. This might have had something to do with the fact that things were going extremely well for them: They were in talks to open both a Chinese restaurant near Horses and a restaurant in New York to be called Froggy’s.
The success also meant an increasing amount of pressure. The couple was trying to open two new restaurants on opposite sides of the country while managing operations at Horses. In April, the New York Times revealed that Thomas Carter, who had left Estela following harassment accusations, would be involved in Froggy’s. Then, on August 25, Eater published a story revealing that the disgraced owner of the Spotted Pig, Ken Friedman, had been a silent partner in the founding of Horses (though they have denied Friedman had any involvement). “There was a little bit of unraveling going on,” Villaflor says.
Then came the series of events that brought everything to a head. In September, a friend gave the couple the kitten Johnson would later say Aghajanian shook to death. Around that time, she began to appear less often in the kitchen — the staff didn’t know why or where she was. Until that Halloween party. Johnson didn’t go, but Aghajanian did. He told that employee that he thought Johnson believed he’d killed their cat — then allegedly elaborated further on the situation. “He explained that he and his wife had a series of cats in New York and Los Angeles that would just randomly die and that he thought his wife suspected him of killing them,” the employee says. “So I asked, ‘Well, what did happen to your cat?’ He said ‘I don’t know. The dogs were fighting with it, and bit it, and it just died.’ So I jokingly said, ‘Well, you killed the cat, right? Like, to put it out of its misery?’ And he said, “Well, like, yeah, I squeezed it until it stopped breathing.’
The next day, the employee saw Aghajanian in the locker room at the restaurant. Once again, she says, he started confiding in her. “He was saying things like, ‘I don’t know when Liz is gonna come back. I don’t know what’s going on. I think she thinks that I killed the cat.’ And I was like, ‘But you did kill the cat.’ And he was like, ‘No, I didn’t.’ I remember turning around and looking at him and saying, ‘You told me yesterday that you killed the cat. Did you forget that? You told me that.’ And he said, ‘Okay, yeah, I killed the cat. So what? She shouldn’t leave me just because I killed the cat.’” The employee recounted this conversation to three co-workers within days. (“I did not squeeze the cat until it stopped breathing, nor did I claim that I had,” says Aghajanian in response to this.)
After Johnson’s restraining order was filed, it became difficult for Aghajanian to work at the restaurant — they were meant to maintain a ten-foot distance. So she sat the staff down and told them her side of the story without going into too much detail — just that she felt she’d been abused in the relationship. There were tears all around, a source close to Johnson said. Soon after, Aghajanian appeared at Horses. The prep staff were getting ready for dinner, and Aghajanian tried to start cooking as usual. The staff walked out as a show of support for Johnson. “None of the food was prepped, so they couldn’t open in time,” the source said. “Horses had to close for that night.” Stephen Light, the main investor behind Horses, called Aghajanian and told him that if the staff wasn’t going to work with him, he’d need to take a leave.
Aghajanian continued to make unannounced appearances around the restaurant over the next few weeks, sometimes even sleeping in the staff lockers overnight, says Villaflor. “We’re just like, ‘Well, he’s technically still on payroll, so we can’t really call the police.” Once, a staffer found him hiding in a dumpster near the restaurant and snapped a photo.
Since the story leaked out, Aghajanian has focused on making the case that he is not a cat killer and that Johnson manufactured the whole story in an attempt to smear his reputation. He’s hired a publicist, who told me his side of the story. “Their dog bit the cat’s head and was not taken to the vet because the next day its head looked better. Another day or two after that, Liz woke up at 3 a.m. and screeched that she thought the kitten was dead. Will picked it up and checked it and it was alive. They went back to sleep. In the morning, Liz woke Will up and shouted again that she thought the cat was dead. Will picked it up again, cradled it, shook it a little, and said something like, ‘C’mon buddy, are you okay?’ but it was in fact, by then, dead. He put it in the trash because it would attract coyotes if it was put outside, and if it was buried outside, their dogs would smell it and dig it up. It was disposed of once trash-pickup day arrived, a day or two later.” On May 19th, he filed a lawsuit against Johnson alleging breach of fiduciary duty and other charges related to their partnership in Horses — and included texts Johnson sent him days after the cat died. “I’m sad about kitten,” she wrote in one, time-stamped October 12, a week after she alleged that he killed it. “Should have taken him to the vet.” She also suggested getting a new dog.
Johnson sticks by the story she wrote in her filing. It reads: “the kitten would not go near Will after a couple days — Will said he didn’t like him and started calling him ‘Coyote Bait,’ said, ‘We were going to feed him to the coyotes.’ One day, I was in the shower when I heard a very loud yelp and came out to find the kitten with huge lacerations and an abscess on its head. Will claimed the dog attacked him, and I believed Will, but Will forbade me from taking him to the vet. I was suspicious, so I asked Will to stay away from him.” A few days later, she wrote, she came home to find her husband shaking the cat, which died the next day. “I was the victim of psychological and mental abuse, so I believed Will when he denied killing these animals. He would insist I was crazy for questioning him and tell me to keep quiet. I now realize Will was torturing and killing these animals.”
Neither Johnson nor Aghajanian were willing to talk to me, but both responded through representatives. Aghajanian denies most everything his former colleagues said about him — expressing distaste for cats in the first place and burning, hurting, or verbally abusing Johnson. He emphatically denies serving improperly shipped crabs and ignoring customer allergies and says that while he did have staff prepare rabbit heads (“because he believes in sustainability”), he didn’t do it as an exercise to make staff uncomfortable. And he says he never slept overnight at Horses or hid in a dumpster. Meanwhile, Johnson wasn’t willing to elaborate on what happened to the other 13 animals she claimed in her filing he’d tortured. I was not able to confirm that the couple ever had anything close to 14 pets die over the course of their relationship. In fact, the number of cats that died under the couple’s care remains somewhat of a mystery. According to Aghajanian, “slightly more than two cats died” at Mimi and “a total of two cats that Will and Liz had died within a five-year period, one in 2017 in Nashville, the other in 2022 in Los Angeles.”
Now, Johnson seems to be trying to position herself as the solo face of Horses, though Aghajanian is still technically on the payroll. She texted the restaurant’s press representative to suggest they go “full court press on Liz Johnson” — including booking an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon; the host enjoyed Horses when he dined there, she wrote in a text message. “I just need to get myself in front of the public and show that I’m a real, likable, normal person.” In a statement to New York, Johnson’s attorney wrote: “It is and has always been Liz’s intention to maintain the privacy of this extremely personal situation. Unfortunately, what we are now witnessing publicly play out reflects what she alleges Mr. Aghajanian has done behind closed doors for years: attempt to exercise control over her through shame, humiliation, and confusion.”
Meanwhile, Aghajanian is in Thailand. Recently, according to Burchett, the two were talking on the phone. “And he was sitting there and he said, ‘Oh, look, a stray cat came up and just sat in my lap,’” Burchett recalls. “And we had a chuckle about it. And he’s like, ‘I’m sitting here petting a stray cat while all of this is going on.’”