Nitin Mehra, 38, is the executive chef and COO of his family's restaurant, East India Company. Mehra is a recipient of this year's Forty Under 40 award. Photo credit: Meg Wall

Five Algonquin College alumni are being recognized for their achievements as leaders in Ottawa after being named in this year’s Forty Under 40.

Considered Ottawa’s “most sought-after business award for people under the age of 40″ by the Ottawa Business Journal, the annual Forty Under 40 selection committee chooses its recipients not only for their personal and business accomplishments but also for their community involvement.

For the past 26 years, the Ottawa Business Journal and the Ottawa Board of Trade have recognized and celebrated the outstanding leaders within the region who have impacted their communities in many ways.

“Giving back differentiates a recipient from a non-recipient,” says Ottawa Business Journal publisher and Forty Under 40 committee chairman Michael Curran.

During the 20 years Curran has been on the selection committee, he has enjoyed seeing an increase in the diversity of recipients who have come from all professional sectors, genders and racial groups.

“It’s not a surprise that many challenges are facing Ottawa today,” says Curran. “These useful leaders offer a sense of hope.”

According to the Ottawa Business Journal, there were 160 nominations for the 2023 award, which were narrowed down to 91 finalists, before zeroing in on the 40 recipients.

Executive chef and COO of East India Company, Nitin Mehra, is one of the commemorated in this year’s cohort.

Mehra, 38, grew up with his parents owning the first East India Company location in Winnipeg. But, like many people just leaving high school, Mehra had been looking at a different career than the one he ended up in – one in the police force. However, his father convinced him to try a future in cooking.

“When you’re 18, you’re not sure what direction to go in,” says Mehra. “I remember even after the first semester – I loved Algonquin, I loved Ottawa – but I still wasn’t sold on a life inside the kitchen.”

After graduating from Algonquin College’s culinary management program in 2005 and later studying at Le Cordon Bleu, Mehra committed himself to his family’s business.

“It’s like everything that you kind of love,” says Mehra. “There are days where you love it, and there’s days where you hate it. But every day does involve work, and it’s challenging, and I think that’s what has kept me around.”

But it is not just a job for him. What started as a small family restaurant in Winnipeg has now expanded to three locations (the additional two being in Ottawa) with now over 100 employees who have become family to him.

In 2017, one of Mehra’s waiters, a young man only 20 years old, had “a sudden and full-blown kidney failure”. Mehra only knew one way to help: to donate one of his kidneys to his employee.

“Blood relative or not, these people are important to me,” says Mehra. “The restaurant industry is hard enough without it being a non-welcoming environment. So, if there’s something we can do for our staff or a way we can be there for our staff, let’s do that; let’s figure that out.”

Adam Van Cleeff, 37, who is also part of the 2023 cohort, graduated in 2008 from Algonquin College’s business administration program with a major in finance. He credits his education at Algonquin College for helping him set his career up for success.

“I really appreciated a lot of the working groups and the teachers, and how well you got prepared for the world,” Van Cleeff says. “It wasn’t super high level that it didn’t make sense and it was just enough in the weeds that it gave you something to come out of it with.”

Now vice-president of customer success at Fullscript, Van Cleeff is excited to be able to scratch off this bucket list item for himself.

Alongside Mehra and Van Cleeff, three other Algonquin College alumni are recipients of this year’s Forty Under 40 award: Derick Cotnam, owner of My Catering Group; Dave Hale, CEO of Craft&Crew Corp; and Kelly Rusk, president of Kelly Rusk Consulting Inc.

Recipients will be recognized at an awards gala at the Hilton Lac-Leamy Hotel and Casino in Gatineau on June 23.