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Conversations With A Head Hunter

January 20, 1994|KATHIE JENKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The headhunter is talking to Rarotonga. It's his first call of the day, and he keeps glancing at his wristwatch. "Of course, I know what kind of person belongs there," he says soothingly into the phone as his fingers nervously click a ballpoint pen. The business day is almost over in other parts of the world, and there are more calls to be made. His eyes look worried. He's just gotten an order for an executive chef, and filling it won't be easy.

As a headhunter, Benoit Gateau-Cumin recruits and relocates stars of the restaurant and hotel industry. In his desktop computer are 4,200 resumes, which he updates every month. The data are so precious that he keeps a duplicate copy in a safe deposit box.

For the past three and a half years, Gateau-Cumin has been operating his small, specialized agency out of a tidy office in Santa Monica, but his clients range from the Ritz in Paris and the Regent of Bangkok to Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Utah. Locally, he's recruited for Arnold Schwarzenegger's Schatzi on Main, Merv Griffin's Beverly Hilton, and Remi in Santa Monica. He also recruits private chefs for famous clients who want to remain anonymous.

Today his mission is to find a qualified chef willing to travel to a tiny tropical island. This is tougher than it sounds. The chef will need experience cooking in a Third World country because it's extremely difficult to get delivery of fresh food into the Cook Islands. He must also be able to invent lots of dishes using bananas, taro, arrowroot and other locally grown ingredients. Even more important, the chef must be single. On tropical islands, chances are a married man will cheat on his wife. "It's a macho kind of reasoning," Gateau-Cumin says matter-of-factly, "but probably true. There are an incredible number of incredibly beautiful women there."

Not all of Gateau-Cumin's clients have such exotic requests. The Hershey Hotel in Pennsylvania commissioned him to scout around for a chef. Upjohn Laboratories in Kalamazoo, Mich., wants him to find someone to feed its staff of 11,000. And he is in the process of filling key positions at a major Southern California hotel.

*

Clearly, this kind of headhunting can be lucrative. For his services, Gateau-Cumin is paid a fee equivalent to 25% of the first year's salary of the person he places. In return, he guarantees his candidate will stay six months. Even with the recession, Gateau-Cumin earned $120,000 last year. This year, he expects to make even more. "All I sell is hot air," he says. "In the '80s it was easy money. Today I work a lot harder."

Gateau-Cumin, 43, came into this business through the back door. In the 1970s he was a French law student hitchhiking across America; to support himself, he took a job as a busboy at a summer resort in Michigan. Upon his return to France, Gateau-Cumin wrote the owner thanking him. He also brashly offered a few suggestions for improving the resort's wine sales. The owner's response was to invite Gateau-Cumin back the next summer to implement his plan . . . for the grand pay of $2.25 an hour plus 10% of all wine sales.

At the time, the resort restaurant was selling five or six bottles of wine a night, so the owner wasn't being especially generous in his offer of a percentage of the sales. But the first night, wearing a tuxedo borrowed from his father, Gateau-Cumin sold 90 bottles. "I was running around in that dining room like you wouldn't believe," he says. "I ran out of everything. That summer I made more money than I had made in my life."

Entranced, Gateau-Cumin came back the next summer. This time he ran the restaurant. At the end of the season, he went back to France to get his law degree, then promptly registered in the hotel and restaurant program at Cornell University. His new career in hotel management took him all over the world--to Chicago, Jamaica, Istanbul, Hawaii, Washington, New York and California. Between hotel stints, he owned--and closed--two restaurants. Tired of management and the politics that go with it, Gateau-Cumin decided to become a headhunter instead.

"I love the hotel and restaurant business, and this way I am still part of it," he says. "It's a lot of telephone calls, a lot of Christmas cards, a lot of reading the paper. But if I weren't in this business, I'd still want to know where everyone is."

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His first headhunting job was at a firm with offices in New York and Florida. He moved to Santa Monica in 1990 to go into a partnership, and then opened the Benoit Gateau-Cumin agency.

At one time, restaurant and hotel headhunting was big business. But as the economy worsened, most of Gateau-Cumin's competitors gradually disappeared. In Los Angeles there are only four headhunting firms specializing in restaurant placements, including the Prospection Group, run by his former partner, Louis Ercout.

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