In May 2020, the pandemic was already wreaking havoc with Ottawa chef Joe Thottungal’s livelihood when fate cruelly threw another obstacle in his path.
The east-end restaurant he’d owned for more than 15 years, Coconut Lagoon, was severely damaged by fire, dealing Thottungal a major blow at a time when prospects for his industry were already dim.
But instead of throwing up his hands in dismay, the 50-year-old native of India turned what could have been a career-ending setback into a symbol of hope.
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Thottungal quickly got to work rebuilding the business he affectionately refers to as his “baby,” officially reopening the new-look, expanded Coconut Lagoon on St. Laurent Boulevard in August to a chorus of cheers.
But he did much more, joining forces with a volunteer-run community kitchen, Food for Thought Ottawa, at the height of COVID lockdowns. Since then, the non-profit organization has served more than 200,000 meals to less fortunate Ottawa residents.
Today, Coconut Lagoon is back, bigger and better than ever. But just as importantly, Thottungal’s philanthropic efforts continue to inspire others.
Cooking camp for kids
In addition to his pivotal role in providing food to low-income residents through the community kitchen, Thottungal also helped run a cooking camp for kids, Junior Foodie Kitchen, this summer with Future of Good CEO Vinod Rajasekaran. The effort was a huge success, with spots filling up almost immediately.
“He is a gift to our community,” Treasury Board president Mona Fortier, who is also MP for Ottawa-Vanier, said of Thottungal during Coconut Lagoon’s reopening bash.
Fittingly, Thottungal is now the recipient of the 2022 Newsmaker of the Year Award from OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade.
Among the annual award’s main criteria are “creating a vibrant and innovative business environment” and “demonstrating strong leadership that serves to inspire others.”
As the owner of two highly regarded restaurants, Coconut Lagoon and Centretown’s Thali, Thottungal has long been a pillar of the capital’s hospitality industry. But friends say it’s his commitment to making his adopted hometown a better place that really sets Thottungal apart.
“He’s such a good person,” city councillor Laura Dudas, who lives in the same Blackburn Hamlet neighbourhood as Thottungal, said of the celebrated chef and his family at Coconut Lagoon’s reopening. “They never stop. They’re constantly doing things for the community.”
Thottungal 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.
He will be among dozens of recipients – including CEO of the Year Kyle Braatz, CFO of the Year Erin Crowe and Lifetime Achievement Award winner Pat Butler – who will be honoured at the upcoming Best Ottawa Business Awards.
This year’s event will take place Thursday, Nov. 24 at the Westin Ottawa. Tickets can be purchased at here.