Soler Energy: Juli Soler has been a driving force behind El Bulli for over a quarter of a century, but turning up for work still gives him the same buzz as it did on day one

From Restaurant Magazine
April 25 – May 8, 2007

Before Juli Soler arrived at the now mythic El Bulli in Roses, Spain, he spent over ten years indulging his life-long passion: rock and roll.

Born in Terrassa, he promoted discotheques in Barcelona and ran a record shop while having, as he puts it, one foot in London. Then in 1981, the proprietors of El Bulli offered him the chance to become director of the restaurant, forever altering his personal soundtrack. But some things never change. “I never miss a Stones concert,” he affirms.

Involvement in the music industry seems to have set the stage for his tenure at El Bulli, putting him and chef Ferran Adrià at the top of the restaurant charts. He says the secret of El Bulli’s success is simply having the best team in the world working towards one common goal: to make people happy, to “create and keep on creating.” He likens the mission to recording an album and says that dining at El Bulli is akin to attending a performance. It’s not just a meal; it’s an experience.

Open six months of the year and serving 50 covers a night, getting a table at El Bulli isn’t much different from landing sought-after tickets. Only 8000 people will walk through its doors every season, spawning year-in-advance reservations. The frenzy has spilled onto the internet, with unscrupulous “winners” auctioning off their bookings.

Soler says that having such a hungry audience propels the team at El Bulli and, in turn, makes their work worthwhile. “We give everything we can because people deserve it. Their enjoyment is our payback, fueling our desire to do what we do day after day.”

It wasn’t always all song and dance. Between 1981 and 1986 the kitchen saw four different chefs come and go. “Ferran is brilliant,” he says, adding that the famed chef has an almost uncanny intelligence and incredible creative ability. He calls Adrià an artist, citing his work ethic, analytical mind and desire to constantly create. When not in the kitchen, Adrià is the main creative force behind the restaurant’s collection of books, all of which are written, edited and produced in house.

When El Bulli owners Marquetta and Hans Schilling gave Soler his golden opportunity back in ’81, it wasn’t exactly a complete leap of faith. His father worked as a maitre d’hotel, thus instilling a passion for service in the young Juli who would help him at weekends. He went on to hone his skills at the Gran Casino in Terrassa, the Chalet de Golf in Puigcerdà and the restaurant Reno de Barcelona, amongst others.

The aim was to make El Bulli one of the great European restaurants. As soon as he took on the role of director he dedicated himself to intense study, visiting top restaurants, learning the ins-and-outs of the kitchen and developing his knowledge of wine. His eye was always on the prize: a happy customer. In 1990, Soler became a proprietor of El Bulli.

Since then, El Bulli has earned three Michelin stars and is synonymous with innovative cuisine, garnering wide critical acclaim. There was a time, he says, that a restaurant career was considered undesirable, and those who worked in a kitchen were looked down upon. Soler is adamant about accepting every award on behalf of the entire crew and with the intention of promoting the industry, thus elevating its profile and raising the bar nationally and worldwide.

Having been at the same job for twenty-six years doesn’t faze him. He talks of his time at El Bulli as if it were a relationship, the kind you get so involved with that there is no escape. And why would he want to leave? He says the buzz at El Bulli exists because it’s magic. “Our customers keep being happy.” That would keep any man coming back for more.

And for those who still long to get a taste of this show, Soler offers some advice. “Write, call.”

Who knows, you might just get lucky.