The chef who proudly admits to buying in cooking sauces is rare indeed. But, if market research statistics are anything to go by, many chefs are purchasing them in bulk.
According to Foodservice Intelligence's report into the savoury cooking sauce market, 41 million litres of sauce - 369 million portions - are sold into the catering market each year.
Whether they are eating Thai or Tex Mex, Italian or Indian, the well-travelled British public demands authenticity in every dish. Manufacturers claim that their ready-made sauces and pastes can satisfy this demand and solve problems of time, cost and labour.
"Obviously, it's not as good as making a sauce yourself, but when you are catering for 4,000 people, you haven't much choice," concedes Malcolm Emery, executive chef at Ascot Catering. The company is responsible for banqueting at Ascot racecourse and for catering at 26 race days during the year, including Royal Ascot.
Emery uses the Sauce Blanche, Demi-Glace and Chicken Velouté sauces from Macphie Foods' recently launched Highland Kitchen range. "I've tried powders and other sauces, but I find they usually have a false flavour," he says.
Having used cooking sauces for about five years, Emery is adamant that the products are improving, but also notes the increasing public demand for quality. Manufacturers, he says, must bear in mind that many people know what an authentic curry tastes like and are unlikely to take kindly to poor imitations.
Manufacturers rise to the challenge
The trade seems to be taking up this challenge. "The public are very discerning nowadays," says Andy Kemp, managing director of Universe Foodservice. The company markets a range of savoury cooking sauces, including nine Indian and Oriental sauces from Sharwood's, five under its own brand, Meal Makers, and seven from Macphie's Highland Kitchen.
"They recognise and want quality everywhere now, whether they are eating in the industrial canteen or a five-star hotel," says Kemp. "But, at the same time, units are de-skilling or having to produce a greater variety of foods and tastes. Our sauces can be used to save time in the kitchen while offering an authentic taste that can be microwaved, frozen or used in a bain-marie."
Universe takes its "authenticity" sell seriously: development chefs have visited Birmingham's balti houses to develop a flavour profile for Sharwood's; a chef's circle, headed by Universe executive chef Charlie Thellusson, has worked on the Italian Meal Makers sauces to obtain a heavier sauce content; and top chefs were invited to consult on the Macphie range.
Tilda, meanwhile, has secured the services of Madhur Jaffrey to lend authenticity to its range of six catering sauces. Not only does her face smile out from all the labels, but, says the company, the celebrity cook initiates each recipe and writes it down before it is worked into the production process.
"There was a very significant impact on sales when Madhur Jaffrey's name appeared on our sauces," says Tilda's food service general manager, Terry Cook. He maintains that "hers is the only name that the UK public recognise in connection with authentic Indian food".
At Discovery Foods, a manufacturer of American sauces, pastes and seasonings, Paul Prudhomme - the New Orleans chef who has come to epitomise Cajun and Creole cooking around the world - has helped the development team come up with the true flavour of New Orleans.
Indian and Oriental sauces present the biggest challenge to manufacturers. According to Foodservice Intelligence, Indian curry sauces make up most of the ready-made sauce market, with sweet and sour following close behind.
Ethnic sauces overall, it claims, account for 48% of the savoury cooking sauce market in volume terms, and are the least likely to be made in-house. At Masterfood Services, which markets the Uncle Ben's brand, development chefs have most recently added Jalfrezi and Thai Red Curry sauces to meet this demand.
Sarah Crow, brand manager at Knorr, maintains that the authenticity of their 27 types of sauce lies in the company's global links. "We are part of an international company [Bestfoods] that allows us to utilise the local knowledge all over the world. In terms of our Oriental Collection, we rely on affiliates around the globe, then our executive chefs make up the recipes. We import authentic ingredients and try to get the very best ones - our black bean sauce is made from the best black beans, for instance."
According to Nick Burdock, managing director of the Curry Sauce Company, it's not what goes into a curry sauce that's important, but what stays out.
"In our sauces, there is no flour used for thickening, no colours or preservatives, all of which go into clouding the taste. Straightaway, you can identify the herbs and spices we use," he says.
The company supplies seven classic curry sauces to individual pubs and restaurants, and exclusive retail outlets such as Harvey Nichols. The sauces can be kept hermetically sealed and chilled for up to three months.
"A perfect curry is a labour of love," says Burdock, "The trade hasn't got time to do it themselves. It's all about covers and turnover."
Breaking down chefs' resistance
At Bar and Restaurant Foods, which supplies a wide range of sauces, sales director Alan Sheppard, himself an ex-chef, predicts that chefs' resistance to using cooking sauces will decline. He believes that demand for convenience products will continue to grow.
"We can make a sauce that is arguably as good as any chef can make, but because of the bulk, we can make it more cost-effective for the restaurant."
Ashley Potts, chef at the Stumble Inn, Llanfyllin, Powys, has to agree. He found the Curry Sauce Company sauces were better than anything else he had tried, and buying them enabled him to expand his menu.
"I used to make my own curry sauces," he says, "but discovered that these sauces were very authentic: good ingredients, no additives, no garlic salt or stabilisers, and no acidic taste that so many other sauces have.
"Most chefs will tell you that they don't use ready-made sauces because of the acidity. I've heard of new methods of heat treatment that, if they come in, will improve things, but I still wouldn't use them if they were also accessible to the public. I want to give punters tastes they can't get at home."
For a copy of the Foodservice Intelligence Savoury Cooking Sauces report, from £1,500, call0181-799 3200.