Joe Thottungal, the owner and founder of Ottawa restaurants Coconut Lagoon and Thali, has been at the forefront of the Ottawa restaurant industry since 2004.
He describes his first restaurant as “humble beginnings,” but he clearly had a recipe for career success.
In 2008 he was named Ottawa Chef of the Year by the Canadian Culinary Foundation. Thottungal has competed and won top prizes at the Canadian Culinary Championships, winning the highest award the Gold Medal in 2016. He has also earned the prestigious Certified Chef de Cuisine (CCC) designation.
This past year, Thottungal and his fellow chefs in Ottawa created Food for Thought, an organization that provides hot meals to those in need in Ottawa. Food for Thought was originally run out of his downtown restaurant Thali, but has since relocated. The organization provides “a hot meal” for recent immigrants, refugees, people on social assistance, those fleeing from domestic violence, those affected by the pandemic, and seniors. Approximately 1000 meals a day are provided by local chefs and volunteers.
Thottungal is a local businessman who, when operating at full capacity, employs 30 employees. In October of 2019, he published a cookbook of recipes from his restaurant that won a gold medal the following year from the Taste Canada Awards. The cookbook and the restaurant are a love letter to his home province in Kerala, India. “Kerala literally translates to land of coconut,” he says. “Everything is coconut-based. People never connected Indian food with coconut. Fifteen or 18 years ago people didn’t know so much but today people know more.”
Thottungal was named a recipient of the Order of Ottawa by Mayor Jim Watson in fall 2020, the year the United Way also named him Outstanding Individual Philanthropist as a Community Builder. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus and sits on the board of the Great India Festival, where he serves as vice-chair. He is also a member of the Toque Blanches Culinary Federation, a national professional association of chefs and cooks.
He also serves as a guest lecturer, speaking to students of Algonquin College’s School of Hospitality and Tourism. “Without a good education you cannot excel,” says Thottungal. “You need to learn, then you can be a good chef. Whenever I get the time, I teach. Education is important.”
Thottungal will receive an honorary degree at Algonquin College’s Virtual Spring Convocation on June 23.