Barcelona District Court Number Two has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the sons of Miquel Horta i Almaraz, a onetime investor in the celebrated elBulli restaurant on Spain's Costa Brava, against the restaurant's owners, Ferran Adrià and Juli Soler. The Horta heirs had claimed that the restaurateurs cheated their father when they bought out his investment, but the court fould no merit to their argument.
Horta was once described as "an eccentric Marxist millionaire." In the 1980s and '90s, he invested in everything from the Futbol Club Barcelona to both the communist and socialist parties in his native Catalonia, and he bankrolled a publishing house called Editorial Antártida/Empùries. His fellow Marxist, the Barcelona novelist and food writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, introduced Horta to a promising young chef from a place called elBulli on the Costa Brava, Fernando Adrià, who wanted to publish a cookbook. The result, El Sabor del Mediterraneo — The Flavor of the Mediterranean — sold little when it was published in 1993, but was ultimately influential among chefs all over Spain and beyond and helped make Adrià's name. Speaking of which, the byline for the book was the first time he described himself as Ferran, the Catalan version of Fernando, the name with which he had been baptized.
The following year, Adrià and his business partner and co-restaurateur, Juli Soler, found themselves with a problem: They had recently purchased the business part of their restaurant — but not the land or buildings — from its founders, Dr. and Mrs. Schilling, and had invested a lot of money in creating a new kitchen. The Schillings had always told them that they'd sign over the property itself to them when they decided to retire — but when that time came, they changed their minds. Adrià and Soler would have to buy the land and bulidings themselves, said Dr. Schilling, or he'd sell them to somebody else. The two didn't feel that they could walk away from the place, having just invested so much in it, but they had no capital. Then they thought of Miquel Horta.
"We went to Miquel and made him a proposition," Adrià once told me, "that he participate in our project as a partner. He accepted right away. He was our 'Mr. Humane.' He helped us very much." They bought the land and buildings and elBulli continued in its rise to become the most influential restaurant of the late 20th century and beyond.
Unfortunately, the transaction with Horta ended badly. According to Adrià, at the time that he made his investment, the company had a net worth of about 250 million pesetas and he and Soler offered Horta a 20 percent stake for 50 million — about €300,000 or $400,000. By 2005, the worth of elBulli had quadrupled, to around €1,200,000, and with Horta's consent Adrià and Soler bought back his interest for 20 percent of that figure. All appeared to be fine until 2008. Horta had developed a progressive mental illness, and in 2008, his sons announced that they were filing suit against the elBulli partners on the grounds that their father's shares had been worth as much as 20 times what he was paid, and that they had taken advantage of Horta's condition to dupe him out what was due him.
When I asked Adrià about the action a couple of years ago, he would say only that "The whole situation is very complicated," adding that he had had no contact with Horta for years. He sounded sad about that fact. He has always maintained that he had no idea, when he concluded his business dealings with Horta, that the man was ill, and he has said repeatedly that Horta asked his advisors at the time whether or not to go ahead with the buyout, and they encouraged him to say yes.
Adrià. whose elBulli Foundation is scheduled to open this spring on what was once the site of the restaurant, expressed satisfaction at the dismissal of the suit. "It's good to be able to begin this," he told reporters, "without having to look into the past." Horta's sons, meanwhile, have announced that they will file an appeal of the decision.