RIP Juli Soler

The public face of the world's most famous restaurant finally succumbed last night to the neurodegenerative disease that so unfairly blighted his last few years. The following is an extract from The Art of the Restaurateur, Phaidon, 2012.

Juli Soler is the restaurateur who made El Bulli famous. It was his partnership with the far better known chef, Ferran Adria, which took El Bulli to heights that no other restaurant has ever reached and, quite possibly, no other restaurant may ever emulate.

www.elbulli.com records that over 2,500 articles have been written about the restaurant, most of them carrying a photo of Adria or one of the 1,846 different dishes that he created with his brother, Alberto.

There are far, far fewer profiles of Soler even though he arrived at El Bulli in 1981, two years before Adria. Soler was running the restaurant when Adria first arrived as a stagiaire in the summer of 1983. Adria became a permanent member of the kitchen brigade the following year and then became chef de cuisine in 1987. During those initial years, El Bulli’s reputation rested on Soler’s extensive and very particular skills as a restaurateur.

And so too did the seemingly faultless execution of the menu at the new El Bulli when it gradually changed its modus operandi in the mid-1990’s from offering a fairly standard a la carte menu to a new menu of far more, smaller dishes served initially every lunch and every evening during the six months of the year it was open.

It was Soler who oversaw how this menu, which grew from around 24 smallish dishes at the beginning in 1997, when I first ate there, to between 40 to 50 dishes before it closed for ever on July 30th 2011, could be served to a room full of 50 very eager, and highly expectant, customers without any apparent hitch or longeur.

Just to put this into perspective, El Bulli was serving close to 2,500 dishes on any one evening. This was obviously a challenge for the 48 chefs under Adria but it was no less a challenge for Soler’s team of 25 waiting staff, particularly as the latter had no point of comparison. To serve 2,500 dishes to the 50 fortunate customers during the four hours or so they spent at their tables is the equivalent of any other busy restaurateur profiled in this book serving four courses, admittedly larger, to over 600 customers in the same time period. How did Soler train his team to do this?

This was particularly difficult because Soler had to imbue his team with the benefit of his professional expertise every spring when El Bulli reopened for business after its winter closure. And this invariably would be a team that included numerous new members who only knew of the restaurant’s reputation and had certainly never eaten there nor probably had ever even walked inside it before they started work. Soler only had a week to do this, seven days, and seven nights apparently, that included cleaning the whole restaurant inside and out after it had been closed for the winter, before they opened the doors to their first customers.

An added challenge for Soler, but a definite bonus for anyone fortunate enough to have a reservation at El Bulli, was its stunning geographical location bordering on isolation.

The nearest town is Roses, a fishing port that has spawned scores of holiday flats over the past couple of decades as it is only 157 kilometres up the picturesque coast of the Costa Brava from Barcelona.

As the road climbs out of Roses towards Cala Montjol, the promontory to which El Bulli clings, the first sign appears that an unusual adventure is about to begin: drawn onto the rocks, at varying distances, are the heads of the bulldog that once belonged to El Bulli’s original owner Marketta Schilling. It was she who, with her husband Doctor Hans Schilling, first opened what was to become the world’s most famous restaurant. In 1961 it was originally a mini-golf course with a small café attached.

The precipitous narrow road climbs and turns and, as it does so, the views of the Mediterranean become ever more alluring. When El Bulli was open for lunch this drive was pure pleasure. In the evening, however, the oncoming drivers of the cars comprising couples and families who have spent the day on the beach just below El Bulli faced the additional challenge of driving into the still powerful rays of the setting sun. Many of them were unquestionably on the wrong side of the road as they turned a bend, ensuring that every arrival at El Bulli was a mixture of culinary excitement and relief.

The car park was certainly the most memorable of any restaurant car park I have ever visited anywhere in the world. On the way in, it was fun to perch on the car park’s walls and look down at the beach and the bay (in which once some friends moored their yacht, leaving their children on board while they joined us for dinner) with the mountain range of the Cap de Creus National Park beyond. On the way out, it was just as much fun to lie on one of the walls and try to count the stars in the sky while listening to the waves below.

But it was as one walked into El Bulli that one experienced one of the most unusual contradictions of this restaurant. On the one hand, it was the most innovative restaurant of its time, while on the other it was home to Juli Soler for the six months it was open (during that period his wife, son and two daughters, the elder of whom, Rita, is now a chef and has worked at El Bulli for two years, took an apartment in Roses). Once inside there was always the enormous contrast between the ultra modern, state of the art kitchen which was built in 1993 and the sequence of small white-washed, almost kitsch dining rooms with numerous pieces of old wooden Spanish furniture that could have been in any dining room along the coast. Perhaps only Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, housed in a 17th-century pub in Bray, Berkshire, has the same intimate, physical presence, albeit without, obviously, such a homely feel.

And this sense of welcoming his guests into a restaurant that was also his home, was extremely important to Soler. When we met judging the Copa Jerez in Jerez, where six chefs and sommeliers from across Europe had to impress a judging panel led by Soler with their menu and sherry pairings, and later at San Sebastian Gastronomika, a chef’s conference, he stressed, 'From the first day at El Bulli, I established as the very best way of running things that the whole team was a family. We were to work in a very coordinated way as a family with the same respect to the chefs, waiters, pastry chefs, the driver, the dishwashers, the sommeliers and all the interns'.

In establishing himself as ‘pater familias’ of El Bulli to all his staff as well his guests, Soler unquestionably possessed the appropriate physique and charms. He is tall; has a mop of swept back hair that has gone greyer over the years; seems to possess a highly mobile, languid frame (a consequence of years in discos perhaps, Soler is a great Rolling Stones fan); and he has a great memory for people, names and faces. He wants to make you feel welcome. And no customer could fail to respond to his heartfelt warmth and interest in you as a fellow human being as he moves to take you into his restaurant/home.

This notion of welcoming all those who wanted to experience El Bulli soon of course became impossible as the restaurant sat only 50 and was open for only six months of the year. Faced with the extraordinary demand for tables as Adria’s star ascended, Soler instituted a system whereby those who wanted to book could try to do so on one day each January with invariably all reservations for the whole season taken in only a few days. This inability to satisfy demand was one major reason for Soler to close El Bulli, as he explained to me one Sunday afternoon in Tokyo.

I had travelled to Tokyo Taste, another chefs’ conference, in spring 2009 with Heston Blumenthal. On the Sunday lunch we joined up with Adria and Soler for sushi and a few beers before the serious demonstrations began the following day. Some time before this trip, Adria had explained to me that he would not want to carry on cooking once he felt that there were no new dishes inside him, that he had exhausted his creative talents.

Now, it was Soler’s turn to give me a premonition of why they would eventually close El Bulli. 'You know, Nick', he explained, 'I did not go into this business to say No to my customers, to tell them that unfortunately we could not accommodate them. The greatest satisfaction at the end of the evening has always been seeing my customers leaving the restaurant extremely happy. But now I am the restaurateur who can only say No, from virtually the moment we open our booking lines one year to the same time the following year. This was not the reason why I wanted to become a restaurateur. I worked all those long hours to be in a position to say Yes to my customers, not No.'

In quite what distinctive and empathetic fashion Adria and Soler chose to manage their teams was made clear to me during conversations firstly with the chef Jason Atherton at the bar of his restaurant, Pollen Street Social in Mayfair, and then with Ferran Centelles, one of El Bulli’s long time sommeliers, over a beer in San Sebastian.

Atherton was the first British chef to work at El Bulli in 1999 but it wasn’t the recipes or the techniques that have left the deepest impressions on him now that he runs his own successful restaurant. 'The biggest lesson I learnt there is that if you want a happy brigade in the kitchen then you must look after your kitchen porters. They have to be happy and working well because they are the bedrock of everything the kitchen does', he recalled.

Ferran Centelles worked for 13 summers at El Bulli. He was initially taken on in 1999, straight out of catering college, on the management principle that excessive enthusiasm for the job will more than compensate for any lack of experience or expertise. He rose during that period to be one of the restaurant’s two sommeliers and one of the core team of fewer than a dozen who stayed on and worked throughout the winter too.

'Juli was the soul of the restaurant', he explained, his admiration for his former boss all too obvious. 'It was he who introduced a sense of calm into the dining room, who made us feel at home so that we could serve from the heart. He was also very funny and irreverent and, by giving the impression that nothing was too serious, he managed to take the pressure off us all.'

Centelles also explained that El Bulli’s organisational structure was very different from the hierarchical norm. 'We all felt very close to Juli and Ferran, as though there were no bosses. There were no head waiters and no head sommeliers. These are lonely positions, I once heard Juli explain, so we are going to share the workload between us. From a personal perspective, this way we had far more opportunities to develop.'

Centelles then recalled an example of how Soler had taught him how to be a better waiter. 'It was my first year as a sommelier and I had just taken a wine order. I had shown the bottle to the host, poured some into two glasses and then just before I was to put them down in front of them, I swirled the glass around to release some more of its aroma. No sooner had I stepped away than there was a tap on my shoulder. It was Juli. He’d seen what I had done and he wasn’t happy. He quietly pointed out that what I had done was not only something the customer could do himself but also that it could easily have caused an accident by allowing the wine to spill. I never did this again.'

This minor incident reveals one aspect of the restaurateur’s art that Juli demonstrated perhaps better than anyone other than the late Anders Ousback, the restaurateur who first alerted me to one essential aspect of the profession.

Ousback, whose Swedish parents moved with him to Australia where he grew up, lived and worked, was responsible during the 1980s and early 1990s for many of Sydney’s most successful restaurants: The Summit; The Wharf at Walsh Bay; Bennelong at the Sydney Opera House; and the Hyde Park Barracks. And yet Ousback never considered himself a restaurateur.

'I’m a loiterer', he would say, 'I believe that is the role of the restaurateur'. And once, most memorably before his tragic suicide in 2004, Ousback elaborated that the most successful restaurateurs are those who loiter with intent.

The intent, every lunch and dinner, is to ensure that the service goes as smoothly as possible and that everyone leaves happy and overwhelmed – not an easy proposition when your restaurant is considered to be the best in the world.

Soler managed this via a combination of his personality – and Centelles kept referring to the fact that Soler had a very special way of talking to his customers and his staff – and the particular layout of El Bulli that he turned so effectively to his, and every customer’s, advantage.

A long, narrow passage led from the front door to what was a bustling reception point. The patio looking out on to the beach was on the left, the kitchen that everyone wanted to visit was on the right. Soler invariably took up a position just to the left of this important intersection with a clear line of sight right across to see who was coming and when. If the patio was already full, then the guests were diverted instead straight into the kitchen and from there to their table. This was absolutely crucial as, with 40-50 dishes going to every single diner, the worst thing for Adria and his team was to find that too many tables were sitting down simultaneously. Soler ensured that this did not happen.

After the meal, when Soler had appeared in the dining room less frequently than a normal restaurateur because of his faith in his young team, had had his photograph taken numerous times with Adria and shaken innumerable hands, he was back on the patio in full control of its several tables which, as they frequently comprised other chefs and restaurateurs, would be occupied until quite late into the early hours of the morning.

While this aspect of Soler the supreme restaurateur was at least visibly obvious to any customer, the principles that underpinned Soler’s confidence in this role were much less so. And they came from a most unlikely source, France.

During the decade from 2001-2011 when El Bulli ruled the restaurant world, its success was hailed as the coming of Spain, the era when Spanish cooking finally dislodged French and Italian cooking as the world’s most exciting. This is, however, a rather simplistic interpretation of what was going on in the restaurant.

El Bulli was unquestionably a huge influence in Spain’s overdue culinary renaissance but, as its reputation surged, so too did its interaction with the rest of the world. Ingredients from China, Japan and South America appeared on its menu. At our last meal there, we were expertly served by a waiter from Mexico City. And its clientele, too, was now from all over the world.

But the service principles were French and laid down when Soler first arrived in 1981 when the Michelin guide was the unquestionable arbiter of taste, particularly for a small restaurant that opened only for the summer season. 'In 1981 I started taking my chefs and waiters to visit the very best restaurants in France, to instill in them that every day we had to make the restaurant better. In the kitchen, in the service, in the food on offer and in the décor', Soler explained. 'I continued this practice with much respect and friendship for the great chefs of France and their restaurants. And after Ferran arrived we carried on doing this for many years.'

What Soler was continually referring to is not just the daily obsession in the best restaurants to make today’s service even better than yesterday’s – a phenomenon which Enrico Bernardo referred to when he went to work at the George V in Paris – but also that this was the basis on which Adria’s culinary experimentation depended. The more than tenfold increase in the number of dishes, the creativity of so many talented chefs, the sheer pleasure of eating in such an unusual setting, all of this novelty depended on the fact that Soler was steeped in the most rigorous principles of French service. And, behind that exceptionally warm and welcoming smile, he ensured that all his waiting staff were too.

In Soler’s case these principles were being layered upon a career that, by the time he joined El Bulli in 1981, had already involved stages in numerous restaurants. When Soler finally sent me the details of his initial career in restaurants it proved so fascinating to Rebecca, my niece and translator, that she added ‘what an interesting life’

'I started aged 12 working in our friend Sr Miguel Ristol’s restaurant in the great casino in Terrassa, Catalunya, where I was born. Then at 13 I went to work for a season in the golf chalet at Puigcerda and the next year, at 14, in the great restaurant Reno in Barcelona. The next year I was planning to go and work on a cruise ship and see the world but my father proposed that we start to work together with my mother to manage a restaurant/cafeteria inside a very important electrical factory in Barcelona. It was very interesting and we served breakfast, lunch and coffee and closed in the evenings and at the weekends.

'At this time, in the afternoons, nights and weekends I started to get into music and I travelled to France every weekend and two or three times to England to import discs that hadn’t yet come to Spain. At the end of the 1960s I became a DJ; I opened two nightclubs where I worked and shop selling my tapes. At the end of the 1970s I closed the shop. In December 1980 I met Marketta and Doctor Schilling who asked me to take over El Bulli as the then chef, Jean Louis Neichel, was leaving to open his own restaurant in Barcelona. I accepted. I opened El Bulli in March 1981 and since then I have been living in marvellous Cala Montjol.'

This period, and the ensuing 30 years, have left Soler with very strong personal likes and dislikes about life in general and restaurants in particular. The former includes rock’n’roll; the dish of calamares a la romana; langoustines in any shape; smoking; sherry; coffee with friends; wines from the classic regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne; and, above all, his family.

A far shorter list of dislikes includes water (he describes himself as ‘aquaphobic’); formality; making people wait in restaurants; and, that perennial occurrence in far too many restaurants, disturbing customers when they are eating. When I asked Soler to describe his ideal style of service, what he sought to achieve and emulate every day when El Bulli was open, he thought for a moment and then responded. 'Dynamic, where there is a sense of speed, of interaction between the waiter and the customer, but no conversation is ever too long to divert the waiter’s attention from what he has to do nor interrupt the customers from why they have come to the restaurant, to eat well and to talk to one another.'

By the mid 1990s, once Adria and Soler had decided to move El Bulli into such a creative style of cooking that it was immediately rendered unprofitable as a commercial entity, they also began to explore new business associations. In outline, this is not that different from the model all three-star Michelin chefs and restaurateurs have followed, whereby the restaurant represents the tip of the iceberg, the visible symbol of the business, while the whole is supported by myriad far less glamorous commercial arrangements with books, endorsements of culinary products, personal appearances, and associations with wealthier companies.

Such was the set-up at El Bulli – 50 customers, 48 chefs, 25 waiters and a trading period of maximum 180 days, plus a not-excessive menu price of €290. An accurate, but unsubstantiated, rumour was that the restaurant lost over €500,000 each summer. When I put this to Soler, his response was, as ever, far more complex than I had envisaged.

'Our economic model was much more complicated than it may seem. We had decided that if we wanted to be creative, then we couldn’t be a business. We could have made it profitable by increasing the price of the menu by €100 a person but we didn’t want to do that, to make it a rich person’s club, although we had such a demand for tables that people would have paid it. But it wasn’t profitable because it couldn’t generate a profit. We simply never wanted it to be a business. What we did instead was to build a series of businesses around El Bulli. These have been fascinating projects because we have learned from working with all of them, companies like Nestle, Pepsico, Lavazza, NH Hotels, Damm beer and now Telefonica. We built up a team of 15 to 20 people to handle this business and the fact that these have gone so well has been down to them.'

Juli Soler was an exceptional restaurateur. Today, although any conversation about El Bulli is naturally tinged with sadness because the restaurant is gone forever, he remains committed to passing on his knowledge and experience to the next generation of Spanish restaurateurs on his extensive travels or via the El Bulli Foundation that will arise in place of the restaurant in 2014.

Soler knows too that he has been extremely fortunate, not just in arriving at Cala Montjol in 1981 as a young, snappily dressed restaurateur keen to prove himself to the world and then to meet, work with, and most importantly, to get on with Ferran Adria. That this partnership has developed while Spain was going through an economic period they refer to as ‘el boom’ – and now can only barely recall so changed are Spain’s, and the world’s economy – has also been hugely important.

While Adria and his team provided the culinary magic, Soler and his team provided El Bulli’s soul. Neither individual could have done what they did without the other. But neither, both stressed to me, could have done what they did without their respective teams.

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