Happy People Make Better Food At LA's Horses – Zagat Stories

Ego-free cooking and staying in the moment keep this Hollywood restaurant rocking.
By Liz Johnson and Will Aghajanian as told to Andy Wang
Liz Johnson and Will Aghajanian are the chefs/owners behind Hollywood bistro Horses. The couple worked together at Mimi in New York (where Johnson was executive chef) and at The Catbird Seat in Nashville (where Aghajanian was executive chef). In Los Angeles, Johnson was previously executive chef at Freedman’s, while Aghajanian was chef de cuisine at Vespertine.
LIZ JOHNSON: So we met in, what, 2012?
WILL AGHAJANIAN: Yeah. I think I was 20 and she was 21.
JOHNSON: We met at a restaurant in Copenhagen. We really just got along. As corny as it sounds, I think Will was the first person who understood my severe obsession with food, and we just agreed on everything. So, yeah, we started dating. We got engaged a year after we met. It was a very long engagement.
AGHAJANIAN: During COVID, they allowed people to get married over the phone, without having a wedding. So we got married over the phone last summer for $30. We didn’t need to make a whole wedding and a whole party. Every night, we throw parties for other people. So a wedding is just a night of service for us.
JOHNSON: And we also wanted to experience things and save the money that we would’ve spent on a wedding to go on a trip and eat and do something useful. So we were sworn in over the phone. It wasn’t even on Zoom. For all they know, we could have been impostors. We were sworn in over the phone, and we surprised our families. We just told them we got married, and then we went to New York City and ate a nice dinner. That was our wedding. I don’t know our anniversary. When was it?
AGHAJANIAN: I think we could probably look through our phones.
JOHNSON: Yes, I could find out. But off the top of my head, no, I don’t know.
AGHAJANIAN: It actually works out very well for me.
JOHNSON: Very romantic.
AGHAJANIAN: We’ve worked together a lot. We did something in New York at Mimi. And then after we were in LA, Nashville was just like, well, what’s this going to be like? It’s halfway between New York and LA. It’ll be fun.
JOHNSON: Now at Horses, more of the dynamic, at least for me, is we’re the ones making the final decision at the end of the day. It’s all our business, and that’s been interesting for me. We’ve always had carte blanche for the most part, but we ourselves were not included in those other restaurants. I think that was why we were so adamant about bringing in the people who work here and getting them invested in what we’re doing. I don’t think Will and I have changed, really. We’re still doing the same shit we’ve been doing for 10 years, working next to each other, which is just like scrutinizing and double-checking each other. That’s what we do, but it’s fun.
We’re both very critical of each other, which is a good thing. And I think we agree on a lot of stuff, but we also have different viewpoints on things like what matters most. And I think it’s only to the benefit of the product because everything just ends up being better. If you work with somebody who just agrees with you on everything, your end product is never going to be that good. We feel that way about who we work with at Horses. We don’t want a yes man. We want to be pushed by the people who we’re working with and make things better.
AGHAJANIAN: When we work on a dish with Horses co-executive chefs Brittany Ha and Lee Pallerino, we’re all, okay, just make it. I think the first step is to just make it, and then we’ll taste it. And sometimes, we make it and it tastes really good. But sometimes it’s like, this piece is a little off, or this is not really the vibe of what the restaurant should be. So I think we make it, we taste it, and then we all say, “Does it fit in, and is it delicious, and how do we make it better?” I think the Herman pasta with vodka sauce went through like 10 different trials.
JOHNSON: This is boring, but I also think there’s a level of it where it’s like, is this executable? Because we’re a big restaurant.
AGHAJANIAN: For the menu, we have a giant shared note, and it’s very all over the place.
JOHNSON: No, hold on, Will has a giant shared note, and it’s super long and has all these cool ideas on it. And we all decipher what he writes, and then some people add and take away. But I definitely think Will came at it with the most.
AGHAJANIAN: I think we knew we wanted a burger, and we knew we wanted a burger like—when I was a kid, there was the weird era where there was the DB burger, and then there was the Spotted Pig burger. We knew we wanted a thicker burger. How do we make one that’s not flashy? There’s no gold leaf or caviar or truffles on it. Or it’s not like a hypebeast thing but just really good. And then Lee spearheaded that. I think a big part was, like, creating the box. What fits in here and what doesn’t?
JOHNSON: I’d like to think there are some unspoken rules that we have. Just as an example, for a garnish, I think there’s an unspoken rule about what is necessary on the plate and what’s unnecessary. So we’re not going to be putting herbs or flowers on something because what is its actual purpose, right? I’m sure there are other unspoken rules I’m not thinking of, but that’s all in line with creating this box. There’s some guidelines we have.
AGHAJANIAN: I think a big part of it, too, is a lot of restaurants that were an inspiration for us. It was Zuni Cafe, it was Chez Panisse, it was the old Spago, it was River Cafe, and then all the synergy between all of them.
JOHNSON: It was almost like this fantasy for us. When we first were talking about it during COVID, it’s like, what do we want to do on the other side of this? This is the place. We’re sitting here dreaming of big groups of people together, eating indulgent food, having a good time, not being fussed over.
AGHAJANIAN: We just wanted a dinner party. How do you make a table feel like a dinner party, where it feels like Martha Stewart’s back there cooking for you or something? We have this Cornish game hen. We had a sous chef from Zuni come in the other night, and he was like, oh my God, this is great. For me, it’s like making weird mashups. When I was a kid, my mom used to make Cornish hen whenever her bosses came over. It’s this weird nostalgia thing for me. Our dish is definitely out of the Martha Stewart Living cookbook and Zuni Cafe. It’s a hybrid.
JOHNSON: We have a smoked salmon lavash. It’s about being inspired by Wolfgang Puck’s smoked salmon pizza, but there’s also inspiration from our friend Armen Martirosyan at Mini Kabob with the lavash. To me, lavash is something that’s probably ingrained in the Los Angeles food culture in ways that most people don’t recognize. That, to me, is very Los Angeleno.
Inspiration can come anywhere. And I think with our menu, we were just really hoping to make this as LA as it could be. And we want to pay homage to anybody who’s inspired us.
AGHAJANIAN: Horses is this restaurant where everybody working there feels like they’re getting their due. Everybody takes responsibility for everything, and if somebody doesn’t like something, we just talk about it, and we’re like, that sucks. How can we fix it?
JOHNSON: It’s this culture where we’re all in it together. When we’re busy, we’re all busy. Will and I have always had that mentality where you’ve just got to do what’s called for at the moment. We’re never too good to wash dishes. It’s definitely been weird, though. We never expected to be this busy, so it’s nice.
It’s not like Will and I putting our names on something and then not being a part of it. And everybody else’s opinions are valued and important. So why would we just take all the credit for that? The ego is just completely set aside. We’re not trying to pump ourselves up in any way. The food is ego-free, and this has been really nice. The other day, I was talking to a guest and she said, “Everyone I’ve met on your staff is so happy.” As corny as it sounds, happy people make better food.
I absolutely love looking out front of the restaurant. We’ve created this little standing bar for people to wait or hang out when they’re leaving or on their way in. My biggest delight is to look out there and see it full of people, like, smoking cigarettes, drinking, and just relaxing. It’s just such a nice thing. Or I love when people sit at the bar and have a burger by themselves. It’s nice to see how it’s all played out.
AGHAJANIAN: A little part of it is like, oh, it worked. People are happy. We had this idea, but it’s like you throw an arrow and it has to go through every single loophole for it to work. People get it and like it and want to be here—somebody who may be high up in one industry is sitting at the bar having a drink next to some guy that’s a cook at a restaurant, and they’re talking and both worlds are colliding.
JOHNSON: It’s nice having celebrities come in and being like, “I’m going to try my hand at the bar. I don’t have a table, but I’m going to go be with the people.” We would read about that at, like, Stars in San Francisco and imagine what that was like. And it’s actually manifesting.
AGHAJANIAN: Each room gets its own little show. If you’re in the red room, you can watch the bartender shake a cocktail. and then the back room has a bar but you also look at the art. And then there’s the kitchen.
JOHNSON: We really wanted the kitchen to be completely open all the way to the back wall. So if you’re sitting even at the window in the front, you can look and see everything that’s happening, the whole length of the restaurant. Our team are superstars. And they’re fun to watch. If I was eating, I would enjoy sitting and peeking into the kitchen, seeing into that world.
Horses came out of nowhere. Our strong suit is we’re willing to recognize that this is something really special. We can’t let this get away. We have to act now.
AGHAJANIAN: Sometimes, you’ve just got to jump. A lot of people are looking for that perfect restaurant and that perfect thing. And they’re turning away some stuff. But sometimes, if something comes across your path and you think it could be something, you just do it. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? It’ll fail, but then you’ll still have this restaurant under your belt.
JOHNSON: We definitely have plans to do more restaurants together. One way that Will and I are different is he’s very strategic and calculated, and I’m very much freestyle. And I think there will be a dynamic where Will be running his own restaurant at some point. And my hope is to become, I don’t know … Will, what is your hope for me?
AGHAJANIAN: I don’t know. She always figures it out.
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