Ottawa-based Chef Joe Thottungal has not just carved a niche for Kerala cuisine in a distant land. His penchant for authentic fare sees many tracing the journey to the roots of the ingredients in 'God's own country'
By: Suman Tarafdar
Posted on: July 11, 2018
Yes, it’s an Indian cuisine restaurant. No, it doesn’t serve chicken tikka masala or butter chicken. Instead there’s beef fry-porotta, thoran, avial and payasam. At his restaurant Coconut Lagoon in the balmy Canadian capital Ottawa, Chef Joe Thottungal is most often at pains explaining to diners that the cuisine served is from Kerala. The state might be positioned as ‘God’s own country’, but explaining its food has taken a while. Even then, the chef seems to have cracked the taste buds. “Friday night reservations now need to be done well in advance,” he beams.
Chef Thottungal was in Delhi recently to present a taste of his cuisine to the food lovers of the Indian capital at Crowne Plaza Today Okhla, New Delhi. Conducting a masterclass, he not only demonstrated three of his recipes, but also discussed the central tenets of Kerala cuisine. “I always stress on authentic fare. At Coconut Lagoon, we do not compromise on the spice levels as the food has to be authentic.”
An owner-chef, he is a Gold & Silver medal winner of Gold Medal Plates, Canada’s highest culinary honour (2016 and 2017). For Canada’s 150th year celebrations, he was the only Indian chef to be selected to cook for 1,000 guests in front of the Parliament hosted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
It wasn’t an easy journey though. Thrissur-born, Chef Thottungal acquired a hotel management degree from Chennai, and started his career with the Leela Kempinski in Mumbai. However, he soon looked for greener pastures. “India, before 2000, was not the best place for chefs,” he recollects. He then moved to Saudi Arabia to take a Chef de Partie position at the exclusive Oasis resort.
In 1998, he immigrated to Canada. “One of my cousins was there. He promised to hook me up with some connections. To go alone, it was very adventurous back then. My road was not easy. Even after I opened the restaurant, people were walking out of the restaurant saying you don’t have the traditional dishes.”
His culinary journey began in Canada at Centro Bar and Grill in Toronto, from where he moved to the Royal York Hotel for two years. He then joined the newly opened Park Hyatt Hotel in Toronto and helped to open the new Annona restaurant as a Sous Chef. A stint at Casino Windsor and Crowne Plaza Hotel, Ottawa followed. A rather consistent flow of culinary awards also helped put him on the map. He won a Bronze medal in Lindt 3rd Annual Chocolate Competition, placed second in USA Rice Competition held in Toronto, while recent awards include a silver at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna, British Columbia in 2017.
After opening its doors in May 2004, the Coconut Lagoon has gained a lot of positive feedback, though there were challenges, says the chef. “I picked Ottawa as it was a beautiful capital with a lot of diplomats and foreign people there, and they supported me. Some, however, were very unfamiliar with my menu. Thoran – who knew? I never had salmon curry, they said. We did not offer naan, instead there was Malabar paratha.” The 75-cover restaurant offers lunch and dinner
A major challenge in the initial period was money. “Restaurant business overall is a risky business, in North America especially. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon. I worked hard with the support of my staff. It was a long, tough journey, but it was rewarded. We developed a reputation for offering flavourful food.” Imitation is the best reflection of success perhaps, and the springing up of three or four other Kerala cuisine restaurants in the city is something he points out. “People are now asking for Kerala cuisine.”
Labour is another challenge. “Canada is not gifted with people like here. Labour is expensive, and hard to replace. I get cooks from Kerala.” Sourcing has become easier, he says, though challenges remain. “Kaima rice or biryani rice is hard to get. Certain spices are hard to get sometimes. Peppercorn sometimes comes from Vietnam or cardamom from Guatemala – the tastes are similar, but as a Keralite, we know!
To those unfamiliar with the cuisine, he explains that it is lighter than the usual north Indian fare as it does not have too much cream or butter. “There is a lot of use of coconut milk and spices such as ginger, green chilies, curry leaves, etc. Also, we do not make one gravy and call it different dishes. Our fish curry is different from the chicken curry, our vegetarian dishes such as thoran or avial taste different.” He also points out that the cuisine is suitable for those following a vegan diet – there are a lot of options as a lot of preparations are made with coconut milk – no cream or yogurt to marinate.
The chef points out several top selling dishes at Coconut Lagoon - Nadan Kozhi Curry, salmon curry, sambaram, king fish curry, pepper lamb and mushroom curry with coconut milk.
FROM WHERE IT COMES
Chef Thottungal also offers food tours to his native Kerala. His regulars soon began realising just how authentic the fare offered at the restaurant was, and joined in the food tours he was offering. This means a transcontinental journey to the spice farms of Kerala, where he guides visitors through the amazing diversity of spices available, pointing out how clove or cardamom, pepper and cinnamon grow.
He stresses that there is variation in the traditional cuisine within Kerala itself. “There is Syrian Christian, Latin Christian, Hindu, Muslim… and each district is different. We offer all kinds of Kerala – biryani from the Muslim region, fish curry from the Thrissur area, beef preparations from the south. If you come to our restaurant, as a Keralite, you will feel like home.”
The success of it all has inspired Chef Thottungal to open another restaurant in Ottawa, which he says will offer pan Indian food, thalis, in a simple way.
Of course, food connects people, he points out. “We are the best ambassadors, connecting people through food. I am the owner and a chef. I was not in the IT business, got laid off and opened this. You have to know what you are doing.” Given that note of authenticity, the future looks bright indeed for this enterprising chef.