A sign on the door says that Thali restaurant, located at 136 O’Connor St., is closed for a private event. Ottawa musician Flute Siva’s ambiant tunes fill the space. The restaurant’s usual setup has changed, and three food stations present the beautiful colours of southern Indian delicacies to the event’s 110 guests: pala goat curry, kadai chicken, payasum and mango mousse.
But it’s the pile of the books that take up a whole corner of the room that have brought this group together. My Thali: A Simple Indian Kitchen is Chef Joe Thottungal’s second book. And on this chilly evening in March, at his second restaurant, the guests at this book launch include Chinmoy Naik, deputy high commissioner of India, Councillor Rawlson King and Councillor Laura Dudas to name a few.
Thottungal, a renowned chef in Ottawa known for his modern Indian cuisine, is a guest lecturer at Algonquin College’s School of Hospitality and Tourism. He also received an honorary degree from the college in 2021 and was named to the Order of Ottawa in 2020.
His first book, published in 2019, is a celebration of restaurant food called Coconut Lagoon, named after his first restaurant. It won the Best Regional Cookbook in 2020. My Thali is made up of recipes Chef Thottungal inherited from his grandma and mother. Both books were collaborations with author Anne DesBrisay, a food critic at the Ottawa Citizen for 25 years.
The new book, which sold about 135 copies in the event’s launch, is a summary of Chef Joe’s culinary trips all over India. For the month of March, Thottungal, who is also a philanthropist, will make a donation to Food for Thought for every copy sold.
This decision is in keeping with his involvement in fighting food insecurity.
“We have known each other for almost 20 years and have cooked together for charity in the last 10,” said Sylvain de Margerie, founder and president of the Food for Thought. “Joe sits on our board of directors as director of culinary affairs.” At the height of COVID-19, the association made up of a group of volunteer chefs, distributed thousands of meals daily to families in need.
The highlight of the event was Mayor Mark Sutcliffe presenting the host with a plaque in honour of the book’s publication.
“I noticed whenever an anniversary photo comes up, we’re eating here,” said Sutcliffe with a laugh during his speech.
Sutcliffe stayed throughout the evening event in honor of the host. The mayor said would not miss the opportunity to get a copy of the book for his wife. “There are three aspects that make our city special and that are demonstrated perfectly by Joe: multiculturalism, incredible food and philanthropy,” said Sutcliffe.
The mayor is not the only one charmed by the chef. Thottungal started his day as a guest on CBC Radio to discuss his latest award from Ottawa Business Journal and the Ottawa Board of Trade: 2022 Newsmaker of the Year.
“It’s my 25th anniversary in Canada since I came in 1998,” said Thottungal who was dressed humbly for the occasion. He wore a simple blue shirt top and a white gopi dress. “The book idea started during the pandemic. I just wanted to give back to the community.”
DesBrisay, his co-author, was blown away by the cuisine of Thottungal 15 years back when she came to review the Coconut Lagoon restaurant.
“He just needed help telling his stories so, yeah, that was a real privilege,” she said. “Working with Joe is a real education in what the experience of an immigrant to this country is like and how he’s just with dogged determination created something really special wherever he’s been.”
In her speech at the event, DesBrisay praised the best recipe in the book named Food for Thought, an homage to their association. It is a simple curry and rice to serve with a vegetable dish, bread or chutney in a thali. Thali is an Indian serving of several condiments in a round container.
“Certainly, his mother might put for his school lunch a chicken curry with red rice, maybe a piece of last night’s fried fish, his grandmother’s lemon pickle all wrapped up in a banana leaf cottage. Small portions – big flavours,” said DesBrisay.
Thottungal events feel like a family reunion in which the guests pick up where they left off with their last discussions. This event also drew a guest who is a bigger celebrity than the mayor: Vikram Vij, a British-Columbia-based chef who is “among the finest Indian restaurants in the world” according to a New York Times food critic. The master of ceremony was close friend of Thottungal, Warren Creates, who is an immigration lawyer.
“While MCing, I realized that I breached a terrible protocol. Normally, I am supposed to introduce first the mayor, MPs, ambassadors and diplomats. But I chose not to and Joe told me not to,” said Creates to a hail of laughter from the audience.
Since Thottungal always seeks opportunities to share and teach new generations, he will be taking 23 Canadians on a culinary trip right after the book launch to his beloved Kerala.
The new book is a dedication to his wife, Suma, for her support and inspiration.
“We want to value people,” said Thottungal. “Not every millionaire is going to buy the book. We need ordinary people to buy the book and enjoy it.”
Chef Joe got the chance to hand Prime Minister Justin Trudeau his copy on Wellington Street on March 11.