The battle over elBulli

Children of investor Miquel Horta claim chef Ferran Adrià cheated their father when he bought back his share in the world-famous restaurant

Chef Ferran Adrià in the Barcelona courtroom, where he has been accused of swindling investor Miquel Horta over his share in elBulli.
Chef Ferran Adrià in the Barcelona courtroom, where he has been accused of swindling investor Miquel Horta over his share in elBulli.JOSEP LAGO / AFP

To some people, Catalan businessman Miquel Horta was a patron who gave elBulli a decisive push when the restaurant had not yet become a world-famous pilgrimage site for foodies. To others, his role was more that of a banker, a financial partner who helped out the business with 300,000 euros back in 1993, when it was going through hard times.

Two weeks ago the children of the financier came face to face with Ferran Adrià, the heart and soul of elBulli, inside a Barcelona courthouse. Horta’s sons claim the famous chef swindled their father when he and a business partner bought Horta’s 20-percent share in elBulli in 2005 for 1.2 million euros, four times the amount he had originally put into it. According to the plaintiffs, Horta’s share should really have been 84 percent, not 20 percent, in which case the share sale should have brought him 67 million euros.

Adrià’s expert witness said this figure is grossly exaggerated since it multiplies Horta’s initial investment by 239. “More than a business transaction, it would be like winning the lottery,” he said in court.

The case is complicated by the fact the plaintiffs hold that their father was incapacitated at the time of the share sale. Two years ago, a court declared Horta mentally incompetent because of his bipolar disorder and appointed his children as guardians. They then sued Adrià and his longtime partner at elBulli, Juli Soler. The latter was not in court last week because he suffers from a neurodegenerative disease.

The chef says he is “indignant” at the “bad faith” displayed by Horta’s family

elBulli, which closed its doors on July 30, 2011, was named the world’s best restaurant for a record five times by Restaurant magazine in 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. It had three Michelin stars and was widely regarded as the most influential center of innovative cuisine on the planet, thanks chiefly to Adrià, who was himself named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine and is associated with the development of “molecular cuisine.”

But back in 1993, the economic crisis was lapping at elBulli’s door, and Adrià and Soler were in dire need of a loan. That was when Horta, who had previously met Adrià at an exhibition, showed up. The financier agreed to lend them 120 million pesetas (around 300,000 euros) for a fifth of the business, on the condition that if he failed to get his money back, he would repossess the entire restaurant.

But even though Horta had accumulated great wealth together with his brother Federic from the sale of the company Nenuco, he later found himself on the brink of bankruptcy. That was when he turned to Adrià for help, in the chef’s version of events. He and Soler decided that the best way to help him out would be to buy back his share in elBulli, which by 2004 was already making four million euros and would make even more in the following years thanks to the economic boom.

“We had no particular interest in buying his share. We only did it to help,” Adrià testified in court. The chef has told the press that he feels “indignant” at the “bad faith” displayed by Horta’s family (he had words of praise for Miquel Horta himself) and “sad” because his personal honor is being questioned.

Horta’s children feel that Adrià and Soler decided to get rid of their father as elBulli headed for global success. Not only that, but they took advantage of his mental disability to pay him less than he was supposed to get. Their lawyer said the lawsuit was about “doing justice, not about taking a cut.” But Adrià is certain this is precisely what Horta’s relatives want: to get financial profits out of the prestige and the wealth generated by the chef. “Success has a price,” he stated.

Most of the psychiatrists who testified in court said that in 2005 Horta was already suffering from a mental disease that incapacitated his decision-making. According to the Horta family’s lawyer, Miquel Horta was liable to walk into a restaurant in his house slippers, lend money to a fictitious company or pay 54,000 euros to celebrate his own 25th wedding anniversary at elBulli. “He was incapable and unhappy, and everyone knew it,” stated the lawyer, bringing tears to the eyes of Horta’s children.

The problem, however, is that there is no written evidence of that mental disease until 2007, two years after the sale. In fact, Horta was not declared mentally unfit until well after that. Adrià’s defense said his children could have easily stopped the share sale since they were part of their father’s company, yet they did not. Also, companies “do not suffer from psychiatric diseases,” he said.

Horta’s initial contribution to the business was key to its success, the family says. “Without him they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere,” says their lawyer. Adrià’s defense, however, sustains elBulli was already prestigious by then, and that its later growth was mainly due to the talent, creativity and hard work of Adriá and his team at the restaurant in Roses, Girona.

“Adrià worked like a slave and never made what a chef in his category makes. There was no trickery, no lack of proportion, no disloyalty,” said his lawyer, adding that another Barcelona judge had thrown the Horta claim out of court in 2009, considering that there were no grounds for a lawsuit.

“We want the honesty and the generosity of people who have given us all their creativity and hard work to shine through,” he added.