An interview with Ottawa chef Joe Thottungal, owner of Thali

We discussed Kerala Culinary Tours, the re-launch of Coconut Lagoon and the imminent release next year of his Thali cookbook

Ralf Joneikies
07 Mar

We've all felt or been subtracted the last two years from many of the things or people that have given us pleasure in our social pursuits. What a joy and privilege therefore to sit down with Canadian culinary icon Joe Thottungal at his restaurant Thali.

We talked about all manner of things from the cultural richness that new immigrants provide to our growing diaspora to his Kerala Culinary Tours, the re-launch of Coconut Lagoon and the imminent release next year of his Thali cookbook. Too much frankly to include here, but an appetizer will need to do.

For those well acquainted with South Indian cuisine and Joe's kitchen, you are at this moment recalling those aromas and tastes and you need no introduction. So, let’s begin...

The Coconut Lagoon cookbook

Ralf Joneikies: With your first restaurant Coconut Lagoon, you brought South Indian flavours to the Ottawa Market. You followed that with Thali restaurant and then the Coconut Lagoon Cookbook.First I need to add a sidebar and say that I have cooked from your book, and I can only express praise for the results it yields. It's smart in it's layout and it's pleasantly detailed in the order of preparation for each recipe. I've seldom had such fine results from a cookbook.That said... something else intrigues me and this is something that comes through over and over again in your writing: a steady tone of gratitude for all you've been given in your Canadian journey. What are your thoughts on how gratitude can manifest in a business and the role it plays, if any, in its success?

Joe Thottungal: Thank you very much for your compliments on the book. We really worked hard on that... to make it easy and accessible for Canadians because it was a new cuisine and many of the things I use are new to people here. My co-author Anne [De Brisay] did an excellent job in writing.I believe in a good foundation and a good foundation will help everything to grow. If we gain the local community’s support it will translate into business success

Ralf: Last year when the fire took Coconut Lagoon from you and all those who loved it, many of us felt that this was one burden too many for your family to bear. The world was already dealing with a pandemic and now here was an extra act of cruelty. What were your thoughts in the months after the fire and are there plans for a reincarnation of Coconut Lagoon?

Joe: Coconut lagoon was and is my second baby. It was very dear to me and my family. The fire was a devastating event for our family and for the staff at CL.The year 2020 was a very hard year for everyone and it was the same for me and our family.I was lucky to have my mother and father at my place during that difficult time.Coconut Lagoon made me who I am now and it is really important to bring back that flagship restaurant and the construction is well underway and we are expected to open the doors in the spring of 2022.

Homecooking, volunteering and where Joe eats

Ralf: When you're not cooking the food of Kerala, what do you prefer to cook at home? Or do you leave the cooking to someone else?

Joe: Working days my wife cooks beautiful meals for us at home and during my off time I cook steaks, fish, potato, salads which my kids appreciate.

Ralf: At your restaurant many years back, I had a fabulous Pilsner from the Etienne Brulee Brewery in Embrun. It was impressive and so I drove out there to see it for myself. Very good brew indeed. So I wanted to ask you: are you a beer or wine person?

Joe: We try to support local and small enterprises and Etienne Brûlée Brewery was one of them, and I really enjoyed the Pilsner so we offered this to our guests. I would say both wine and beer goes well with our food and it is matter of personal preference

Ralf: I believe you are involved in a number of community endeavours, can you tell us a little about that and how others might get involved?

Joe: I am with a new designated charity Food For Thought, where we cook hot meals for almost 800 people a day, Monday to Friday. People can help us by donation or by helping us by being a volunteer.

Ralf: Okay I lied... one last question: When you go out with the family, do you have a few favourite restaurant destinations?

Joe: We really enjoy middle eastern cuisine as well as Chinese and Greek food. EVOO on Preston has a very good Greek kitchen.

Among so many other impressions, speaking with Joe, I was in the presence of a deeply thoughtful and gracious man. A man connected to his heritage and who, through his staff and passion, amplifies his commitment to bringing all peoples together at the table. This is the gift of internationalism. The gift that people from “away” bestow upon those already living here. They bring the love of their cultures and blessedly share it with us so that we may not just enjoy these traditions but also become smarter about the world in the process.

I believe in supporting small, independent businesses so if you're looking for a fine Christmas Gift, the Coconut Lagoon Cookbook is available at both Thali and at Perfect Books on Elgin.

Joe's Culinary Tours of his Kerala home will resume in 2023 so check the Thali website for updates before the end of 2021. Coconut Lagoon is slated to re-open in the Spring of 2022 so we can start thinking about what we'll wear for the occasion because, well, the moment warrants it.

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