Juli Soler, the Other Genius of elBulli, Succumbs at 66
I'm riding shotgun in Juli Soler's dusty white Voyager heading back from an excellent lunch of jamón ibérico and spiny lobster paella at a modest hotel restaurant in Roses, on Spain's Costa Brava, heading back to his headquarters — the legendary elBulli. He punches on the CD player, and the Rolling Stones come blasting out, an old song, "Stupid Girl." Juli gets a big, dark smile on his face and rocks back and forth, slapping his hands on the steering wheel like an automotive Charlie Watts. "This saved my life!" he yells over the music. "This song?" I yell back. He shakes his head. "No, music! Music saved my life! Music makes life worthwhile!"
Juli Soler Lobo was the director of the dining room at what was originally called Hacienda El Bulli and evolved into the legendary elBulli from 1981 until it closed in 2011, becoming co-owner of the restaurant, with Ferran Adrià, in 1990. He was also Ferran's collaborator, sounding board, inspiration. Half a dozen years ago, shortly before he announced that elBulli would close down as a restaurant and reopen as a foundation for gastronomic studies, Ferran mused to me about the fact that Juli would probably want to retire soon, and that he didn't know what that would mean for the place. "It is impossible to imagine elBulli without Juli," he said. "Me without Juli is difficult to contemplate." Another time he said simply "No one can understand my relationship with Juli. It's impossible."
Juli was born in 1949 in Terrassa, about 15 miles northwest of Barcelona, in Spain's Catalonia region. As a boy, he went to work for his father as an apprentice waiter at a local spa hotel and then catering lunches at a local factory, where (he later said) he first learned the importance of keeping tight control of expenses. He was a rock-and-roll fanatic who spent evenings in discos and clubs, opened a record shop called Transformer, after the Lou Reed album, for which he bought LPs tax-free in Andorra and drove them discreetly back home in the trunk of his car. He moved on to run a combination disco, music club, and restaurant — the Rolling Stones, he once said, were the soundtrack of his life; somebody dubbed him "Jumpin' Jack Juli" — and then burned out.
A friend — Fermi Puig, later a prominent Catalan chef himself — got him an interview at an obscure Michelin-starred restaurant up a narrow road from the Costa Brava beach town of Roses, El Bulli. He hiked miles up the hill to the place and got the job. The owners, a German doctor and his wife, realizing that he'd had no experience with fine dining, sent him on an expense-paid tour of European restaurants, culminating in a month-long job at the two-star L'Orangerie in Düsseldorf — where he once made the kitchen stay open late to accommodate Pink Floyd, in town for a concert.
When he was back at El Bulli, the owners hired a new chef, a Frenchman named Jean-Paul Vinay. In 1983, at the request of a mutual friend from jazz club days, Juli hired on a young man on leave from the Spanish navy as an assistant cook. The man, Ferran Adrià, showed great promise, and after Vinay resigned the following year, Juli installed him and the restaurant's French sous chef, Christian Lutaud, as co-chefs. After about a year and a half, Lutaud left, and Ferran was running the show. Juli and Ferran never looked back, and by the mid-1990s, elBulli (as it was by then styled) was being hailed as the world's greatest restaurant.
You'd often hear his friends say "Juli is crazy" — often following that assessment with "like a fox." He was definitely unconventional. Fermi Puig once told me that "Juli [sometimes] did things that make me think of Groucho Marx. He had an office with a glass window in the door, and when you'd call him, he'd stick his head out the window and he was all elegant with a shirt, tie, and jacket. When the door opened, though, we would realize that he wasn't wearing pants, and he'd go out into the restaurant like that." I once mentioned to another mutual friend that I'd been having a long conversation with Juli, and the man replied "In what language? Martian?" He liked to greet and say goodbye to friends by leaning slightly forward and touching foreheads.
The last time I saw Juli was at the closing night party for elBulli in late July of 2011, walking around with an enigmatic smile on his face, while the Stones and other bands blasted from speakers in the restaurant's parking lot as revelers ate good ham and local shrimp and drank Champagne and gin and tonic.
My most vivid image of him, though, comes from some months earlier. I'd been hanging around the kitchen, making notes for my book about Ferran and the restaurant, and was leaving to go have dinner someplace else. He waylaid me on the way to my car and took me by the arm and led me to his Voyager. "Get in," he said. "No," I said, "I've got to get going." "Get in!" he insisted. I did. He turned on the ignition and (who else?) the Stones blasted through the car, "Start Me Up," loud enough to rattle the windows. He rolled them down. He banged the steering wheel and pumped his body back and forth, subsumed in the music. He mimed driving fast, jerking the wheel back and forth. He smiled maniacally. He seemed lit up from within. Then, suddenly, it was over. He stopped moving, turned off the CD, put up the windows, nodded to me, and we got out. He had made his crazy point, about music, about friendship, about whatever. We touched foreheads and I drove off.
A little more than a year after elBulli closed, it was announced that Juli had been diagnosed with a degenerative nerve disease. He pretty much withdrew from public life, and was rumored to be in an increasingly bad way — though our mutual friend Gerry Dawes, who has covered the Spanish food and wine scene (among other things) for decades, had lunch with him early in 2014. He said he was the same old Juli, though he was on heavy medication and apparently had only limited periods of lucidity each day.
On Monday, the disease claimed Juli's life.
"We have lost a wonderful man," Ferran Adrià told The Daily Meal, "without whom it is not possible to understand the culinary revolution of the past 20 years. He was all passion and generosity."