When Ferran Adrià announced the death of Juli Soler on Monday, the food world went into shock. In English, Spanish and Catalan, Adrià tweeted: "The saddest news I wish that I have never had to bear."
Soler, who had run El Bulli with Adrià, died from a neurodegenerative disease that had kept him relatively inactive since 2012. He was 66, and had been at El Bulli, in Catalonia, Spain, from 1981 -- when it was no more than a pleasant beachside dive -- until it closed in 2011, universally acclaimed as the best restaurant in the world. Soler was also executive director of the El Bulli Foundation.
If you knew anything about El Bulli, you knew that Soler was less the manager of the restaurant than he was its soul; its jovial animating spirit. (In a statement to Spanish newspaper El Pais this week, Adrià compared Soler to Groucho Marx, and confessed that Soler had hired him as an apprentice at the restaurant in "a memorable night of drunkenness.")
Soler is credited as co-author on most of the El Bulli books, including the 2008 "A Day at elBulli," along with Adrià and his brother Albert Adrià. In another tweet this week, Ferran Adrià said: "Bullinianos will never forget that none of this would have been possible without him."
"Juli was a real restaurateur,'' Adrià biographer Colman Andrews said in an email. "He certainly knew food (and definitely knew wine) but his genius was in seeing the big picture, all the parts of the restaurant experience that made it memorable; and of course in recognizing talent. He was always winning 'best maitre d'hotel' awards, but I'd have to say that Juli's real impact on the food world was elBulli's impact, because I don't believe it would have developed into the restaurant it did (nor Ferran into the chef he did) without him."
Toward the end, the restaurant was fielding 2 million requests a year. Adrià may have been the alchemist of modernist cuisine, but even alchemists have to pay the bills somehow. And while the cooking at El Bulli may have been endlessly inventive, it was always playful and fun.
"People always think of Ferran as the mad genius and of Juli as the sober front of the house," Anya von Bremzen, an author and an early advocate of the restaurant, said from Stockholm. "But it was almost the reverse. Juli was just as crazy creative, crazy enough to sense a genius in Ferran when he applied for a job, crazy enough to create a unique environment and all the accouterments behind the dishes."