Hollywood Chefs’ Nasty Divorce Includes Claim of Cat Murder

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Google
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Google

The chefs who own the hot Hollywood restaurant Horses are in the midst of a sprawling divorce battle that involves allegations of abuse, infidelity and a string of dead cats.

Will Aghajanian and Liz Johnson are the celebrated duo behind the bistro that the Los Angeles Times dubbed “a new modern L.A. institution” and the Michelin guide gushed is “the buzziest restaurant in town.” They were working on opening a second restaurant, Froggys, in New York City last fall when their marriage collapsed, according to court docs filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Some of the most outrageous details began circulating on social media on Wednesday, along with a rumor that a journalist was about to pop the story. The Los Angeles Times then unearthed the divorce documents, which confirmed that Johnson claims she caught her husband trying to kill their adopted kitten and suspected him of murdering a string of felines.

Reached by phone in Thailand, where he said he was working on a “pop-up” eatery, Aghajanian, 31, denied those allegations to The Daily Beast and claimed his wife is trying to “destroy me and take everything.”

”I love animals. I can't kill a lobster in my restaurant,” he said, alleging that his wife is attempting “weaponize” the MeToo movement to gain control of their businesses. Johnson, 32, declined to comment.

Johnson, who met Aghajanian more than a decade ago as interns at the world-famous Copenhagen restaurant Noma, alleged in a Nov. 1 request for a restraining order that her husband was verbally and physically abusive throughout their marriage.

In her court filings, she says their relationship broke down one evening in October, when Aghajanian became enraged over her leaving for dinner without him. (Text messages included in her petition from the night in question show Aghajanian berating her over text.) When they returned home, she says, he “unleashed” on her, calling her a “fucking idiot” and a “piece of shit.” She also alleges he grabbed and twisted her wrist to pry her phone away and then threw it back at her so hard it hit her in the stomach.

After that incident, she writes, she became “terrified” of what Aghajanian would do if he learned that she knew about his “use of prostitutes” and sexually transmitted diseases, and decided she had to leave him. She claims he then tried to contact her numerous times, leading her to block him, and that he proceeded to “harass” her family and coworkers to find out where she was.

“People at our workplace say he has become manic,” she wrote in the November declaration, adding that one employee has threatened to quit “because of how scary and threatening he has been.”

Her declaration also included a request that Aghajanian stay 100 yards away from their three dogs, Pancho, Javi, and Spud. Johnson wrote that several of the couple’s cats had died “mysteriously” over the years, including one that a vet said appeared to have been abused. She claims another of their cats later developed a “huge laceration” on its head, which Aghajanian told her was the result of their dog biting it, but that a few days later she found Aghajanian “violently shaking” the cat. It died a few days later. (“He doesn't kill cats,” Aghajanian’s attorney told The Daily Beast.)

“I am terrified Will is going to find me or hurt me/someone/himself,” Johnson wrote in her petition. “I am in hiding and so anxious I can't even sleep.”

Aghajanian filed his own petition for a restraining order in January, alleging that he was the victim of Johson’s “long-term abuse.” He claimed her petition was an attempt to “leverage to force me out of our businesses for her personal gain.” (The judge denied his request.)

Aghajanian claimed in court papers that Johnson threatened to kill him “multiple times,” and described an incident in 2016 in which Johnson allegedly overcooked chicken and got so angry that she “put a metal spatula on a hot oily griddle, then pushed it against my forearm, severely burning it, and leaving a scar.” Another time, Aghajanian alleged, Johnson “put a spoon in the fryer and burned me on my arm, leaving a scar.” He claims that multiple people, including his own mother, witnessed physical and verbal abuse. His filing also contains screenshots of text messages in which Johnson calls him a “pussy” and a “fucking idiot.”

“I've never hurt her. I care about her. I’d still take a bullet for her,” Aghajanian told The Daily Beast, adding that he is now seeing another woman. “I was broken for a long time, [but] I’m happy now,” he added.

The conflict between the two appears to have spilled out into their restaurant, where they continued to work together despite the restraining order requiring them to stay 10 feet apart.

According to Aghajanian’s declaration, he worked in the garden while Johnson worked indoors. At one point, however, he claims she walked into the garden and yelled “coward” at him in what he believed to be an attempt to get him to violate the restraining order. He also claims Johnson changed the code to the lockbox where the keys are kept, locking him out of the restaurant, and held a meeting with staff where she called him a “sex addict” an “animal abuser” and a “master manipulator.”

This was not the first scandal to hit the couple’s restaurants. The pair were reportedly ousted from Catbird Seat in Nashville after running the kitchen together for just over a year—a stint that industry insiders registered as surprisingly short, especially given their co-nomination for a James Beard Award. Last year, Horses made headlines when disgraced restaurateur Ken Friedman claimed to be a “silent partner” and profit-sharing owner in the restaurant. (A spokesperson for the restaurant told Eater that Friedman, who was accused of sexually harassing multiple staff members, was “involved in very early conversations of Horses, but his behavior became extremely inappropriate and we cut all ties.”)

All the drama didn’t stop Horses from becoming a massive success, with celebrity fans like Will Ferrell and Beyonce. The New York Times raved about its “astonishingly good” menu items and “bright, effortless and charismatic” service; the L.A. Times called it “the city’s most exhilarating new dining experience in the last year.” With the launch of Froggys, a new American restaurant in New York’s West Village, the pair’s star seemed poised to climb even higher.

Now, the couple will see each other next on June 5, according to court records—at a hearing on Johnson’s restraining order.

Pilar Melendez contributed reporting.

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