By Artyom Zalutskiy
Joe Thottungal, owner and founder of local restaurants Coconut Lagoon and Thali has been at the forefront of the city’s food industry for nearly two decades. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the restaurant industry, Thottungal has stepped into a leadership role with his generosity and philanthropy, recently earning him Algonquin College’s top honour.
In 2008, Thottungal was named Ottawa Chef of the Year by the Canadian Culinary Foundation. He has competed in a number of culinary competitions and won first place at Ottawa’s Gold Medal Plates in 2016. Both of his restaurants, Coconut Lagoon and Thali, are among the city’s best regarded and most popular destinations. In 2019 he published a cookbook entitled Coconut Lagoon which won a gold medal the following year from the Taste Canada Awards.
Thottungal is also well known for his philanthropy and voluntary contributions. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus, he sits on the board for the Great India Festival, and he is a member of the Toque Blanches Culinary Federation. He also has a very close relationship with Algonquin College, often serving as the school’s guest lecturer. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Thottungal stepped into an even bigger leadership position by starting his Food for Thought program with fellow chefs. The program provides over one thousand hot meals a day, serving recent immigrants, people on social assistance, refugees, those fleeing domestic violence, and anyone affected by the pandemic.
Algonquin’s Special Events Coordinator, Susan Pridmore, said that the College’s Honorary Degree “recognizes individuals in the community who have distinguished themselves through their professional careers or who have made an outstanding contribution to the College or the community.” The criteria for the College’s Honorary Degree nominees include: making a significant contribution to Algonquin College and the enrichment of its students; serving as an outstanding role model for the community; and demonstrating the values of the College.
“Mr. Thottungal is a wonderful example of letting actions speak louder than words. After meeting [Thottungal], when he filmed his Honorary Degree address, I immediately felt his genuine nature and understood why he has become a leader,” says Pridmore.
“Mr. Thottungal is a wonderful example of letting actions speak louder than words.”
As a frequent guest lecturer at Algonquin College, Thottungal has also shown a desire to pass on his knowledge and expertise to the next generation. In Algonquin’s press release he said, “Without a good education you cannot excel. You need to learn, then you can be a good chef. Whenever I get the time, I teach. Education is important.”
In the past year, Thottungal himself has endured many hardships, with the numerous shutdowns of his restaurants due to lockdowns, as well as a fire that destroyed his flagship restaurant, Coconut Lagoon. Thottungal, however, has continued to give back to his community, including through Food for Thought.
“We are pleased and proud to provide Mr. Thottungal with this honour,” says Pridmore. “He has helped many people in Ottawa and is a wonderful example of showcasing to students not only the importance of hard work, innovation and creativity, but how fulfilling it is to give back and be part of something greater than just the singular actions of one’s self.” Thottungal has had an immense effect on his community and the Algonquin Honorary Degree serves as a gesture of his influence on Ottawa.