City Bites

Ottawa’s gold medallist on winning, modernizing the Lagoon, and hosting food tours

It has been a whirlwind few months for Chef Joe Thottungal of Coconut Lagoon, who took home gold in November in the Ottawa segment of the prestigious Gold Medal Plates competition. He won with a halibut dish, the fish marinated in green mango juice before being slow-poached in canola oil infused with garlic, shallots, and Kerala spices.

The busy chef is now prepping for the Canadian Culinary Championships on February 3 and 4 in Kelowna, B.C., where he takes on top chefs from across the country. If that’s not enough, Chef Thottungal is also presiding over a renovation, expected to finish by March or April, which will add 45 seats to his busy restaurant.

City Bites Insider caught up with Chef Thottungal to quiz him on his preparations for the Canadian Culinary Championships — and what the renovations to Coconut Lagoon are going to look like.

Has life been crazy since your Gold Medal Plates win in November?

It has! Last year, we were on the podium in bronze position. This year, it was two steps up to gold. Many new people found out about us at Gold Medal Plates so we’ve started to get many new customers from all over the city.

 Joe Thottungal poses with Olympians Rosie MacLennan and Erica Wiebe
Coconut Lagoon’s Joe Thottungal poses with Olympians Rosie MacLennan and Erica Wiebe after winning the Ottawa leg of the Gold Medal Plates. The culinary competition raises funds for Canada’s Olympic athletes.

Was your renovation and expansion plan for Coconut Lagoon precipitated by all the new business over the past year or is it a long time in the making?

Expanding Coconut Lagoon was always part of my plan. We just happen to be doing it now because everything has finally come together. We have been working with the architects at Project1 Studio on the renovation plans and it has taken a year to get all the permits signed and all the plans drawn up. It’s a big renovation.

How many seats do you have now and how big will it make it?

Right now, we can seat around 70, but it’s a bit tight. We’re adding 500 square feet more. We won’t add 50 more seats, but we’ll make it more comfortable and spacious, and there’ll be a big bar. The look will be more modern to go with the cuisine.

Coconut Lagoon
A quick street-side photograph shows the Coconut Lagoon that diners have known for more than a decade.

And we hear there will be more parking.

Yes, that’s an important point. There was a house behind our restaurant that came up for sale last year. We are losing a few parking spots due to the expansion, but we will demolish the old house and add 14 more spots. It will be great to have more parking so people don’t have to park on surrounding streets and walk over.

When will everything be finished?

We’re hoping to be completely finished by end of March or April. The addition will go on in the winter.

But some work is being done right now, correct?

Yes, we’re sprucing up the exterior with the new brick and big windows.

Rendering of what Coconut Lagoon will look like by Spring 2017.
Project1 Studio, the architecture firm behind the expansion, provided this rendering of what Coconut Lagoon will look like by Spring 2017.

Will you have to close at all?

No, we hope not. We may have to close for a few days, but we’ve been planning all of this renovation with Project1 Studio with the idea that we can do it without closing the restaurant. If you close for a long period of time, you lose the rhythm.

Did you ever consider just opening a second restaurant?

No. I have been working 6 or 6.5 days a week here for 13 years and I will continue to do that. That is why the food is so good. I don’t want to have five branches — I want to keep the quality!

So, let’s switch topics. How are you prepping for the Canadian Culinary Championships in February? Are you nervous about competing against top chefs from across Canada?

We are confident. I have already met with Marc [Lepine, of Atelier] and Jamie [Stunt, from Soif] who have both competed at the Canadian Culinary Championships. They’ve given me the inside scoop on what it’s all about. We’re doing something unique and different.

Coconut Lagoon's Joe Thottungal (centre, in red) shows off his Gold Medal Plate
Coconut Lagoon’s Joe Thottungal (centre, in red) shows off his Gold Medal Plate after winning the competition in November. He competes in February in the Canadian Culinary Championships, against the winning chefs from across Canada.

Even the “black box” portion of the competition doesn’t worry you?

I have done competitions like this in the past when I worked in hotels in Toronto [at the Royal York and Park Hyatt] so for me the black-box competition will be no problem. We’ll see what we can do!

Experience makes all the difference. If you know your stuff you can come up with ideas quickly — I have been cooking for 22 years without a break so this feels natural to me. And I have a very good sous-chef on my team.

You’ll be gone four days. Will the chefs from this year’s Gold Medal Plates be doing a takeover of your restaurant?

Yes, I have been talking to Marc [Lepine] so that’s in the works. They’re thinking of takeovers on Friday and Saturday nights.

And, finally, just because you’re not busy enough, we hear you’re hosting a culinary tour of southern India in March?

Yes, this is the third time I have done this. I also hosted tours in 2014 and 2015. It’s run by Bestway, which handles the logistics.

dried cardamom
A picture from one of Chef Joe Thottungal’s culinary trips to southern India — dried cardamom.

What does a typical day look like?

We do cultural and touristic things, but the beauty is that we can go to places that I know well so I can give people insider experiences. We go to plantations, so we can see how a coconut plantation works or how cardamom is dried. It’s a real insider look.

When we go to restaurants, we talk to the chefs and visit the kitchen. Everyone opens up their kitchens and shows how they do things — how they clean the fish or cut the vegetables or make the sauces.

At night, we stay in hotels. The chefs make a special menu and come out and talk about their food. Not every tour would get that opportunity.

We also go to my house and have lunch and meet my Mum and Dad. That was a highlight on the last tour.

A coconut plantation
A picture from one of Chef Joe Thottungal’s culinary trips to southern India — a coconut plantation.

And the tour is capped at 24?

Yes, which is a nice small number to make things very personal. It is a very unique and personal tour. It is very relaxing! It starts on March 5, so when you get back a couple of weeks later it’s almost the end of winter, which is nice. It is good to come back as spring starts.