Restaurateur who served playful 35-course dinners at elBulli
Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30
Juli Soler, who died on July 6, aged 66, was the manager of elBulli, a modest beachside restaurant two hours north of Barcelona, who talent-spotted and promoted a young chef called Ferran Adria, supporting him as he turned it into a gastronomic institution that topped the Restaurant magazine poll a record five times.
Adria achieved this by pioneering molecular gastronomy (or as he put it "techno-emotional cuisine"), with the aid of such devices as freeze-dryers, liquid nitrogen tanks, gelling agents and "spherifiers". In elBulli's surreal culinary universe, melons were reconstituted as orange caviar balls; anomalous flavours (tobacco-flavoured blackberry crushed ice) were combined; the humble green olive became an intense essence inside a simulacrum of its own skin; martinis were "deconstructed" and partly sprayed by an atomiser on to diners' tongues.
For some two decades before it closed in 2012, for €350 a head elBulli served a 35-course menu de degustation described by one reviewer as "by turns playful, amazing and frightening". More than two million hopefuls would bid for the 8,000 places available during the restaurant's annual six-month season. The decision to close the restaurant made global headlines.
Juli Soler Lobo was born on May 31, 1949 in Terrassa, north of Barcelona. As a boy he worked as an apprentice waiter at a small hotel where his father was the head waiter. He later helped his father run a canteen in a factory, worked in front-of-house jobs at several restaurants and, during the 1970s, ran a record shop, helped a friend run a discotheque and worked, briefly, as a concert promoter. In 1981 he became manager of elBulli.
The restaurant had been founded by Hans Schilling, a German doctor, and his wife, Marketta, who, in the 1950s, had bought a plot above a cove called Cala Montjoi, near Roses on the Costa Brava, where they built a mini golf course and a beachside snack bar. The golf course was a failure, but the Schillings decided to turn the snack bar into a restaurant, naming it Hacienda elBulli, after Marketta's beloved French bulldogs.
In 1975 the Schillings hired Jean Louis Neichel, an Alsatian-born French chef who won Hacienda elBulli its first Michelin star in 1976. Then in 1981, they hired Soler.
He scrapped the down-market "Hacienda" in the restaurant's name and hired a young French chef, Jean-Paul Vinay (Neichel left in 1980), whose nouvelle cuisine-inspired menu won the restaurant its second Michelin star in 1983. The same year, Ferran Adria, a high-school dropout turned naval recruit decided to spend his summer leave at elBulli.
Soler was so impressed by the young man's work ethic and creativity that when Vinay left to start his own restaurant in 1984, he put him in charge of the kitchen along with his colleague Christian Lutaud.
Juli encouraged Adria to follow his imagination and, during the off season, they visited leading restaurants. Adria's "eureka" moment came at a cookery demonstration by Jacques Maximin, who, when asked his thoughts on innovation, replied: "Creativity means not copying" - a lesson Adria took to heart.
Lutaud left elBulli in 1986, and the following year Soler put Adria in sole charge. With Soler's support, he transformed the restaurant into a place of gastronomic pilgrimage . From 1990 the pair owned the restaurant jointly.
It gained a third Michelin star in 1997 but with just 15 tables and one sitting a day, six months a year, elBulli lost money hand over fist, and in 2011 Adria and Soler announced its closure the following year. The restaurant subsequently morphed into the elBulli Foundation, a sort of culinary think-tank .
Juli Soler is survived by his wife, Marta, and their son and daughter.