July/August 2012 Silver Spoon Award winner: Benoit Gateau-Cumin
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Benoit Gateau-Cumin

Julie Mautner / July 2012

Food Arts presents the July/August 2012 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Benoit Gateau-Cumin, the über connected hospitality headhunter who fills top posts (operations, financial, marketing, culinary) in pedigreed hotels worldwide. His clients praise his discreet and personal approach, his astounding knowledge of restaurant and hotel history, the size and caliber of his global network, and his innate grasp of their needs.

Gateau-Cumin and his team fill 25 to 40 positions each year. Given that less than 1 percent of hospitality placements are handled by search firms, that’s an impressive piece of the pie.

You may not know him…but chances are he knows you.

Hitchhiking around the United States one summer, he was offered a ride and an opportunity: the driver had a car he needed delivered cross-country. To the young and trusting Frenchman, it seemed like a win-win. “Near Holland, Michigan, I learned the car was stolen,” he recalls. “The police asked me to stick around a few days, and I happened to meet some resort owners. They offered me a busboy job, and I fell totally in love with the business.” He made $11 in tips his first night, “a fortune” in 1970.

Gateau-Cumin spent the next three summers working in Michigan, finishing up law school in France in between. Then it was off to Cornell, where he earned his master’s in hotel administration on June 4, 1975, and started work—sales manager at The Whitehall Hotel in Chicago—two days after that. For 11 years he bounced around the business in New York, Washington, D.C., Jamaica, Istanbul, and Hawaii. When a failed restaurant venture cost him his life savings, Gateau-Cumin called a headhunter who said, “Why not come work for me?” He stayed four years, becoming the firm’s top producer. He launched The Boutique Search Firm in California in 1992.

Gateau-Cumin attributes his success to an exceptional memory and a good handle on psychology. “You handhold, you counsel,” he says. Also key is his experience with disparate corporate cultures. “A Peninsula person is not a Hilton person.”

“He really listens and then finds the perfect person,” says Eric Ripert, chef/co-owner of Le Bernardin (NYC). “Thanks to his operational background, candidates trust Benoit,” says Neil Jacobs, president of global hotel operations at Starwood Capital Group.

Today 95 percent of Gateau-Cumin’s clients are repeats…and many were candidates themselves. “Making a great match feels incredible,” he says. “Even more so when a CEO calls requesting a search…and he’s someone I placed as a gm not that long ago.” But even with 29,000 A-list candidates in his database, making the perfect match remains a challenge. “If the good résumés were online,” he asks, “why would someone pay me?”