Inside the egalitarian, ‘chef-heavy’ kitchen at Horses

Liz Johnson, Brittany Ha, Will Aghajanian, Lee Pallerino, Terence Leavey and Hannah Grubba of Horses in Hollywood.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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Each chef at Horses in Hollywood has a role in the collective good, forming a kind of informal system of checks and balances.

At Horses, there’s no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.

On bright white tiles in the restaurant’s back hallway, near its oven and its ice cream machine, there’s black ink scrawled in various handwritings: buckwheat pancakes with Bahri date butter, a Monte Cristo, cinnamon buns, salad, smoothie, canelé French toast outlines and ideas of brunch. But more importantly, it’s a glimpse into the minds of not one or two chefs but five or six of them.

The writing on the wall at Horses' in Hollywood. Along with some of the dishes served there.
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times ; Dish photos by Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Horses, one of L.A.’s most buzzy new restaurants to open in 2021, might be headed by two notable chef-owners, but behind the scenes, the kitchen runs on an egalitarian system where everyone’s ideas can go up on the wall: Four “co-chefs” of equal standing — plus a sous-chef and a pastry chef — are all creating the menu, unlike any other team in L.A. right now.

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“That’s Lee’s handwriting, that’s Hannah’s handwriting, Will’s handwriting here, my handwriting here, that’s Brittany, I think,” says chef Liz Johnson, pointing at the collective brainstorm.

Johnson recently returned to Los Angeles after opening Freedman’s in Silver Lake then leaving, abruptly, to help run Nashville’s the Catbird Seat with her husband and business partner, Will Aghajanian. Together they’ve landed in Hollywood and opened their version of a California bistro meets French cafe in the former home of legendary bar Ye Coach & Horses (most recently the Pikey; see critic Bill Addison’s review for more) with the kind of space and menu designed to feel “more like a party” and a vibe than a restaurant, the pair says, lifting inspiration from the likes of Ma Maison, Café Des Artistes and Zuni Café.

(L-R) Josh Filler, Lee Pallerino, Liz Johnson and Brittany Ha get ready for Horses' dinner service.
(L-R) Josh Filler, Lee Pallerino, Liz Johnson and Brittany Ha of Horses in Hollywood.
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Johnson and Aghajanian will be the first to admit they’ve garnered a reputation for being a bit nomadic. Their culinary whims and ambitions have fueled their jobs and travels for the last decade-plus, landing them both in far-off locales such as Copenhagen — to stage at Noma, where they first met — and inspiring the kitchen setup of Horses. They say it’s not a question of whether the couple will someday leave again, but when, and making sure their team can maintain the restaurant while the chef-owners consult and “co-chef” from elsewhere.

Wanting to create a restaurant that lives beyond their own physical presence in the kitchen, they needed to build out Horses with a team of capable chefs with similar goals and equal footing. Now, there are give-or-take six of them, all with equal voice.

“We’re a chef-heavy kitchen,” Johnson says.

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Prep work at Horses in Hollywood.
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

The pair tapped another husband-and-wife team to take on the title of co-chef alongside them, longtime friends and former coworkers Brittany Ha and Lee Pallerino, who helped open Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta’s in Culver City. In August, amid construction delays, Johnson and Aghajanian began recipe testing in the kitchen of Ha and Pallerino’s Koreatown apartment, all four co-chefs conceptualizing the new menu together. The space was crammed with bodies, but it paid off, Ha says: It’s where the endive Caesar was born, where they figured out their burger grinds and where they solidified their pasta offerings.

Josh Filler, who worked with Ha and Pallerino at L.A.’s Roberta’s, came on as sous-chef, while Hannah Grubba, formerly of the NoMad L.A., took on the role of pastry chef. Prep cook Dan Jones and cook Ian Deguzman round out the staff. Chaos usually remains at bay through maintaining routines at their respective stations; each has a role to play in the collective good, and they all form a kind of informal system of checks and balances to sound off on every dish and, in theory, better the food and one another as cooks.

To watch the chefs work alongside one another simultaneously is a sight: Elbows and spoons and spatchcocked Cornish hens in one another’s orbit within a kitchen of roughly 400 square feet. And for them to execute it five nights a week to the restaurant’s three packed dining rooms is a ballet.

The dark chocolate tart with milk sorbet at Horses.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

The oven is small, so the whole day and its use is scheduled meticulously, beginning with Grubba’s shift, which starts at 8 or 9 a.m.; as pastry chef she handles the oven the most, and in the morning she makes cheesecake and chocolate tarts, amaretti cookies and pie crusts, in addition to spinning ice cream and sorbets. Jones, who also worked at Roberta’s, is also in early but spends his time readying the food for the rest of the cooks: He’ll make fresh pasta, prep aiolis, grind meat for the burgers, and cut potatoes to French fries.

The two owners arrive around 11 a.m., with Johnson almost immediately washing dishes and “running air traffic control” throughout the afternoon and evening. Aghajanian gets his prep started, and typically heads up marinades, sauces, snacks and miscellaneous dishes. Soon after, Filler arrives for his prep, then later oversees the grill station during service for the likes of swordfish, steaks and pork chops.

Ha and Pallerino make their way to the Horses kitchen at around noon, Pallerino readying the onslaught of Cornish game hens (by far one of the more painstaking dishes to prep and one of the restaurant’s most popular), as well as the burgers, and Ha tackling salads and helping to manage orders and deliveries — though she doesn’t shy away from tasks such as cleaning and lightly poaching the tubs of gleaming sweetbreads, either.

Lee Pallerino and Brittany Ha of Horses in Hollywood.
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Last, at around 2 p.m. Deguzman arrives to help ready ingredients and execute during service. They all prep together, chattily — and then, as opening draws near, silently and studiously — until 4:30 p.m. They eat family meal together (another collaborative act), then open for dinner at 5:30 p.m. Intermittently they’ll share tasting notes for the evening’s dishes or thoughts on prior items, providing feedback and bouncing ideas off one another.

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“There’s no machismo person saying, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ It’s like: Let’s all taste it, let’s all think about it, do we like it?” says Aghajanian, who added this is the first time he’s worked in a kitchen of this nature. It’s the same for Johnson, who says she’s never worked with so much trust and equality in a kitchen, with the exception of her direct work with Aghajanian.

Will Aghajanian and Lee Pallerino of Horses in Hollywood.
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s definitely weird because it’s not like we have to answer to anybody in a sense,” Johnson says. “I can’t stress enough that it’s like a big collective: We’re all coming to these decisions collectively. The answer is never ‘no.’ Have I worked somewhere like that? Never.”

To Filler, the youngest of the team, having this level of trust in fellow chefs at roughly the same title and weight has allowed the team to flourish in its creativity within only weeks of being open.

An ace team of chefs reinvents Hollywood’s storied Ye Coach & Horses space.

“There’s like five or six chefs at one time, and we all have our own ideas,” he says. “I’ve never been somewhere quite like this where things are changing from so many different angles so many times, and you trust everybody to be doing the right thing. I think that’s the weirdest thing: You’re used to having a kitchen hierarchy, but everyone says, ‘This is the thing we’re going to do today’ and it typically turns out really well. Normally at a restaurant that wants to change the menu all the time and talks about it doesn’t really do it, but we have three new dishes that came out today, alone.”

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Crunch time before the 5 p.m. dinner service begins at Horses in Hollywood.
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

At 4 p.m., a little over an hour before opening, Aghajanian is chopping chives for the salmon while Pallerino loads spatchcocked birds onto trays. In the main dining room, front-of-house staff are setting silverware and cleaning the upholstery of the yellow banquettes. The energy begins to shift into something more frenetic. Johnson hustles through the kitchen asking if anyone has an offset spatula; it’s time to fill the restaurant’s now-signature horse-shaped butter molds with the now-signature house-churned butter.
With less than an hour to go before doors open, the chefs are almost entirely silent at their stations, each zeroed in on their final tasks. “Right around now is when everyone pushes to get set up really hard,” Filler says. “It’ll get chaotic for 30-ish minutes. Tensions are running high.”

At about 40 minutes to opening, Johnson heads to the pass and begins piping “Horses loves you” in chocolate onto plates for any guests celebrating birthdays. Filler carefully arranges spoons and knives at his station to get ready for the rush — they’re expecting a packed house.

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With less than half an hour to doors, a hush falls over the restaurant. Johnson is plating horse butter, Aghajanian has just finished grilling the lavash for the smoked salmon, and Filler is wrapping the extra loaves of bread.

At six minutes to open, the playlist kicks on. Johnson folds plate wipes, which she soaks in a vodka solution and will use to erase smudges or errant sauce at the pass before the dishes go out to customers. She readies her iPad, which she’s linked to the restaurant’s security cameras, and uses to time sending out next courses.

Josh Filler at Horses in Hollywood.
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

At five ‘til, Filler tries to center himself before the rush as Pallerino wanders around the stations to see if any pepper needs to be ground, salt containers refilled, oil bottles replenished. At this point, they say, they’ve done all they can before service. Guests are standing outside the door and peering in through the windows, faces pressed to the glass.

Aghajanian is stirring a saffron risotto special; he spoons a taste and decides it needs more salt, then asks Johnson to come taste and weigh in. His partner considers, then takes a second bite. Then he takes another bite, and they concur: They need to cook it further — cutting it perhaps a little too close to the moment guests will place the first orders of the night.

“Just riding the lightning,” Aghajanian jokes. The whole team, embracing the calm before the storm, is doing it together.

Terence Leavey prepares for Horses' dinner service.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)