Newsmaker of the Year Profile: ‘Chef Joe’ sees adversity as just another opportunity to give

It’s mid-November, just days after Joe Thottungal’s 50th birthday, and the first powdery snow of the season dusts the corners of St. Laurent Boulevard and McArthur Street where Thottungal’s Coconut Lagoon restaurant has stood since 2004. 

Inside, the freshly renovated space is airy and sophisticated. You’ll find no traditional Indian decor, but the high ceilings, contemporary lines and cool slate-blues subtly evoke the surf-smoothed ambiance of Thottungal’s home province of Kerala on India’s Malabar coast. Thottungal says he’s not trying to recreate India in Ottawa; instead, he wants to deliver the “taste” of India in a stylish, contemporary setting. 

It is certainly a far cry from the humble restaurant Thottungal opened 18 years ago at what was once a sports bar, a place he himself describes as “a hole in the wall.” He likens the gradual transformation to the broader immigrant experience.

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“An immigrant who comes into the airport, he doesn’t have proper winter shoes, he doesn’t have a nice jacket. But he comes in, he starts living,” Thottungal explains. “Next year, he will buy better boots, a better jacket. Five years down the road, he buys a house, he drives a good car. We always improve.”

The dramatic makeover of Coconut Lagoon followed a devastating fire in May 2020 that shuttered the restaurant and forced Thottungal to shift operations to his downtown location, Thali, which he opened in 2018. 

Pandemic lockdowns were not kind to the restaurant industry and Thottungal has endured more than his share of adversity; the February convoy occupation also forced a closure of his Thali restaurant. But Thottungal seems to treat the hardships as opportunities to reflect, to rebuild and to give back. 

“I look at life in a different way,” Thottungal says. “And as a restaurateur, we got enough time to look at what we were missing during the pandemic, once it slowed down, because we had never slowed down until that time.”

Celebrity chef and one-time Dragons’ Den dragon Vikram Vij is not at all surprised to see his good friend take adversity in stride. 

“I think what motivates him is to bring his culture and his love of the country that he comes from onto the plate,” Vij says. “He’s very proud of being a Keralite and where he comes from, in the same way that I’m very proud of being a Punjabi and from northern India. So I think it’s more important for us that there is a country called Canada that gives us this backdrop to be really, really who we are.”

Thottungal studied culinary arts in India and worked in high-end hotels both there and in Saudi Arabia before emigrating to Canada in 1998. In Toronto, he worked in the Royal York and Park Hyatt hotels before moving on to the Crowne Plaza in Ottawa.  

Thottungal says his upbringing in Kerala taught him the value of hard work and the importance of treating others with dignity and respect. 

“We were treating our staff very well and staff stayed on with me. Until the fire, we kept pretty much everybody employed, even in COVID, the community was supporting us and we were getting orders,” says Thottungal, who used his own staff rather than third-party delivery services like Uber Eats.

In fact, Thottungal’s leadership through the pandemic went well beyond ensuring his staff could continue to feed their families and pay their mortgages. He assembled a host of volunteer chefs and partnered with the Food for Thought Net Café to provide up to 1,800 meals a week to people experiencing homelessness, donating the use of the Thali kitchen until the fire forced him to relocate the Coconut Lagoon operation to Thali. 

Thottungal, who had been leading a culinary tour in Kerala when the first lockdown was imposed, says the project grew from necessity. Through phone calls from quarantine, he knew that his restaurant fridges were full. 

“And my first instinct was to call my friends and get rid of my food. I didn’t want to waste it,” he explains. “So, I started giving out to (The Ottawa) Mission, the Shepherds (of Good Hope) and things like that.” 

That generous impulse in the face of adversity earned Thottungal a Community Builder Award and the Order of Ottawa in 2020. David Gourlay, vice-president of the Shepherds of Good Hope Foundation, co-nominated Thottungal for the Order of Ottawa and named him to the Table of Community Champions in 2021 for his long-standing contributions. 

“He’s more than a partner to us, he’s a friend,” Gourlay says. “His restaurants are not just restaurants where food is served. They truly bring people together.”

Just days before his interview with OBJ, Thottungal was at the Shepherds delivering steak with mushroom sauce and dessert. He had prepared the meals with his family as a private act of generosity to celebrate his 50th birthday. 

“Before I enjoy myself, I need to put other people in front,” Thottungal says. “To get a steak, for me is not a big thing but for them it is.”

Altaf Sovani, former chair of hospitality and tourism at Algonquin College, has known Thottungal for more than a decade and says this spirit of giving extends well beyond Thottungal’s philanthropic efforts. 

“He used to come as a guest speaker for our international cuisine class in our culinary program. And students really loved him and his approach to international cooking,” Sovani says. “He brought a lot of joy and experience looking at cuisine a little bit more globally.”

Sovani describes Thottungal as a “community builder” who was always eager to share his experiences and to take on culinary co-op students and recent graduates. 

“He’s an inspiration,” Sovani says. “Inspiring to the future chefs coming in. He’s even inspiring to a lot of restaurateurs, too. If he can do all this stuff and do fundraising, why can’t we do it? We’re in the same industry, right?”

Robin Duetta curates the Taste of Hope event for the Shepherds of Good Hope and worked with Thottungal on the Ottawa Restaurant Fund, which raised and disbursed more than $100,000 to restaurants impacted by the February convoy occupation. 

Duetta says chefs and restaurateurs are probably Ottawa’s largest philanthropic business group and that Thottungal leads the pack.  

“Several charities rely on him to engage with their donors. Joe donates his own money, his restaurant’s resources, he uses his influence to bring people to the table to support the causes he cares about and he’s a trusted advisor to many of the leaders of our charitable community,” Duetta says. “I do not believe that the word ‘no’ exists in Joe’s world. Whenever he’s called upon, he will do whatever he can to help people.”

He adds that the most striking of Thottungal’s admirable qualities is his humility. 

“He has never asked for recognition and would prefer that no one was aware of any of this. It is not in his nature to want to pump his chest and brag about all the things he’s done to help people,” Duetta says.

Thottungal’s own reaction to the Newsmaker of the Year award bears this out. He joins a prestigious list of previous Newsmaker of the Year recipients that includes former Canopy Growth CEO Bruce Linton, e-commerce software giant Shopify and Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health.

“When I got it, I was reflecting on me and I was thinking, ‘Do I wake up and say, oh, I want to be a newsmaker next year, let’s make some news?’ No, I never do that,” Thottungal says. 

At the same time, he is grateful to be an example for others who are in position to give, just as he is. 


1998 – Thottungal comes to Canada

2004 – Coconut Lagoon opens 

2008 – Ottawa Chef of the Year, Canadian Culinary Federation

2013 – Leads first culinary tour to home province of Kerala, India

2016 – Gold in Gold Medal Plates (Olympian fundraiser)

2017 – Silver in Canadian Culinary Championships

2017 – Coconut Lagoon undergoes extensive renovation

2018 – Thali restaurant opens downtown

2019 – Coconut Lagoon cookbook published 

2020 (May) – Fire devastates Coconut Lagoon (no injuries)

2020 – Coconut Lagoon cookbook gold medal Taste Canada Awards

2020 – Order of Ottawa

2020 – Outstanding Individual Philanthropist

2020 – Community Builder Award

2022 (January) – Thali restaurant forced to close due to convoy occupation

2022 (March) – Ottawa Restaurant Fund disburses $102,730 to 43 culinary businesses and Cornerstone Housing for Women

2022 (August) – Renovated Coconut Lagoon reopens

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