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French Bistros “La bataille des sauces secrètes”

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BORDEAUX— Marc Vanhove grew tight-lipped as he entered his laboratory and approached a 130-gallon steel vat designed to house a secret weapon in a long-running culinary conflict: steak sauce.

“I am the only one who knows its composition,” says Mr. Vanhove of the sauce that underpins his burgeoning bistro empire.

Nonsense, says Corinne Gineste de Saurs, proprietor of rival l’Entrecôte, which has been serving—and guarding—a similar sauce for decades. Mr. Vanhove, she says, is merely an impostor.

Sauce is serious business in France. To remain a cut above the competition, chefs labor for years to prove they have the right stuff. The Gineste de Saurs’s stock dates back to 1959, when Ms. Gineste de Saurs’s grandfather Paul concocted the condiment to accompany the only dish on his menu: steak and fries, a staple so essential it can make or break a restaurant’s fortunes.

Steak-frites plays a leading role in French cuisine, says restaurant consultant Bernard Boutboul. “It’s our national dish,” he says.

For restaurateurs like Ms. Gineste de Saurs, the sauce that goes with the steak is the very backbone of an august culinary tradition. “It’s the sauces that created and maintained the universal dominance of French cuisine,” legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier wrote in 1903.

To safeguard the bread and butter of the generations to come, the Gineste de Saurs family obsessed over keeping their sauce recipe a secret. Production was moved from the kitchen to the safety of a lab tucked away in an undisclosed location.

Quickly the culinary mystery acquired legendary status, even drawing copycats overseas. About a decade ago, France’s eminent daily Le Monde devoted an article to decoding “the sauce that turns into gold,” alleging it primarily consists of chicken liver, thyme, mustard and butter.

“That is far from accurate,” says Ms. Gineste de Saurs, adding that even her husband doesn’t know the recipe, which is safely stashed in a bank vault.

But Mr. Vanhove believes he has cracked the code.

When he opened his restaurant chain in 2010, the restaurateur launched a media campaign with an immodest claim: “If you love l’Entrecôte, you will adore Bistro Régent.”

Today Bistro Régent largely outflanks l’Entrecôte, with 27 restaurants dotted around France—and dozens more on the way—compared with l’Entrecôte’s five. Cousins of Ms. Gineste de Saurs operate a handful of restaurants in Paris and abroad, serving the same family recipe.

Thirty years ago, Mr. Vanhove worked as a chef in Paris. A colleague who had previously worked at Mr. Gineste de Saurs’s restaurant, handed over the key he had been looking for. “I cautiously put the recipe aside, until it was the right time to dig it back up,” he says.

“It’s like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, or different brands of ketchup,” he says. “You can’t stop someone from reproducing a certain flavor.”

Taste isn’t the only thing Mr. Vanhove replicated. Like Ms. Gineste de Saurs, he produces his condiment in a secret lab. He has also shadowed l’Entrecôte’s locations, positioning a Bistro Régent a stone’s throw from each of Ms. Gineste de Saurs’s restaurants, with green lettering in the windows touting his “famous sauce.”

Much is at stake.

The question of whether anyone can lay claim to the formula of l’Entrecôte, once voted the most well-known restaurant in Toulouse, is now up to the courts. Ms. Gineste de Saurs has filed a lawsuit against Mr. Vanhove, seeking €900,000, or about $990,000, in damages and demanding he stop referring to l’Entrecôte in his marketing. She can’t ask him to take his sauce off the market, because French law doesn’t protect culinary inventions.

Copyright : Matthias Verbergt