One of the world’s most celebrated chefs, Spaniard Ferran Adrià, is to appear in court over allegations that he cheated a former partner out of his proper share in the legendary El Bulli restaurant.
The heirs of Miquel Horta, a former financial backer and shareholder in El Bulli, claim that the chef took advantage of their father’s frail mental health to con him into selling his share in the business for a knockdown rate, according to Spain’s Cadena SER radio station.
Horta’s children, who have taken control of his interests becuse of his mental health, say that his financing of a new, bigger kitchen at the beachside restaurant outside the north-eastern town of Roses was key to El Bulli’s later success.
Horta received 20% of the business in return for putting in the money to rebuild and expand the kitchens in the early 1990s.
In 2005, Adrià and his business partner Juli Soler bought out Horta – who had originally made his money from making eau de cologne. They reportedly paid Horta €1m for the 20% share.
Now Horta’s sons, Jofre and Sergi, claim that Adrià and Soler deliberately set an excessively low valuation for a restaurant that had become a brand name with global recognition.
They have produced an independent valuation, which reportedly priced El Bulli as nine times higher than the rate paid to their father – or some €45m altogether.
A civil court judge in Barcelona has set a trial date for November, although experts say the two sides could reach an out-of-court settlement before that.
Adrià did not respond publicly to the announcement of the trial and there was no response to messages left by the Guardian.
The Catalan chef closed El Bulli last July, ending a period of 17 years in which he and Soler turned it into the world’s most famous restaurant.
He said at the time that he had wanted to close the restaurant while it was still at its best.
El Bulli was voted Restaurant magazine’s best restaurant for five years running from 2006.
Cadena SER reported that both Adrià and Soler had decided not to comment on the Horta affair in public – though Soler was reportedly “hurt” by the allegations.
“The truth is I am not interested in polemics,” Adrià told a television interviewer last year after news of a dispute with the Horta family first became public.
“I haven’t got involved because one has to be aware that one cannot be liked by everyone, that is impossible.”
Last year, Adrià said that the restaurant barely made money. “This is like a research and development department. You shouldn’t expect it to make money,” he said.
Professor Julia Prats, an economist who carried out a case study on El Bulli for the University of Navarre’s IESE business school, told the Guardian that it worked more as a marketing tool for Adrià. “Even if it breaks even, that’s an accomplishment,” she said.
The Horta family believe that their father was “cheated by the accused, who hid from him both profits and parallel activities carried out through third companies during the time he was a partner”.
In the meantime, the Adrià family has now branched out into tapas bars in nearby Barcelona.
El Bulli is being turned into a research foundation, with architects plans already available for a new cinema-brainstorming house inside what looks like a large rock, and other buildings including an archive.
The new buildings will have to win planning approval, as El Bulli is inside the Cap de Creus natural park.
Adrià has teamed up with Spanish telecoms company Telefonica, which is the foundation’s main sponsor.
• This article was amended on 10 May 2012. The original said incorrectly that Miquel Horta had died.
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