Juli Soler, who discovered chef Ferran Adria and helped him turn Spain's El Bulli into one of the world's most influential restaurants, died Monday at his home in Rubi, near Barcelona. He was 66.
Soler took over the management of El Bulli in 1981 and three years later elevated Adria from line cook to top chef. Together, they launched an era of gastronomic innovation fueled by Adria's imaginative experiments converting foods into foam.
Under their leadership, El Bulli held its Michelin three-star status for more than a decade.
"None of this would have happened without him," Adria said on Twitter of his longtime business partner. He said Soler's death was "the saddest news I wish that I have never had to bear."
No cause of death was given, but Soler retired a year after the restaurant's 2011 closing, following his diagnosis with a degenerative neurological disease.
Food critic Colman Andrews, in his 2011 book "Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food," wrote that Soler was "Alter ego, henchman, sounding board, and professional helpmeet to the world's greatest chef. Without Juli Soler, there would be no El Bulli … and probably no Ferran Adria."
The restaurant, located in Catalonia on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, was a phenomenal draw. Open only six months a year, it served about 8,000 patrons each season out of the hundreds of thousands who called for a chance to experience Adria's alchemical deconstructions of familiar foods.
An olive was formed from frozen olive juice, and ravioli from liquefied peas. Some dishes, like the potato foam, were frothy concoctions made with a device used to whip cream. The courses were often served with precise instructions to diners: A spoonful of caramelized trout eggs, for example, was to be consumed in one bite.
A meal of 20 or 30 courses, many of which consisted of only a mouthful or two, could run $150 per person.
Juli Soler Lobo was born May 31, 1949, in Terrassa, in northeastern Spain. At the age of 10, he was working as an apprentice waiter at a small hotel dining room where his father was maitre d'. Later, he worked at an employee canteen his father ran for a local factory.
In the early 1970s, after completing his military service, Soler opened a record shop. He later tried his hand at concert promotions and ran a combination restaurant and music club where jazz, rock and traditional Catalan music were performed.
In 1980, he was ready for a change. A friend introduced him to Dr. Hans Schilling and his wife, Marketta, who owned El Bulli (Catalan for bulldog) and were interviewing for a manager. They liked Soler and sent him on a two-month culinary tour of France, Belgium and Germany before entrusting him to run their restaurant.
When El Bulli's French chef, Jean-Paul Vinay, left to start his own restaurant, Soler promoted Adria, whose passion, creativity and hard work had made him a standout in the kitchen. "Ferran was Frank Zappa," Soler said in the Andrews book.
In 1990 Soler became co-owner of the restaurant with Adria, whose gastronomical experiments began appearing on El Bulli's menu a few years later. Over the next decade, it became a gourmet mecca, rated the world's best restaurant five times by Restaurant magazine between 2002 and 2009.
It closed in 2011. Adria, who by then had created more than 1,800 dishes, said the main reason was a fear of repeating himself. In its place, Soler and Adria created El Bulli Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes culinary research and innovation. Soler was executive director when his illness led him to step down.
"Juli and I were like a married couple, 30 years together, 14 hours every day," Adria told the Spanish newspaper El Pais when his longtime collaborator retired. "He's generous and daring and allowed the culinary team the freedom to put avant-garde before business."
Soler's survivors include his wife, Marta, and two children.