Coconut Lagoon fire 'a nightmare for any chef,' says owner

The owner and award-winning chef at Coconut Lagoon says his east Ottawa restaurant will be "out of commission for a long time" following a Friday evening fire in the upstairs unit.

Joe Thottungal says his charitable work during COVID-19 will continue

Coconut Lagoon owner Joe Thottungal stands outside his Ottawa restaurant on May 23, 2020, one day after a fire broke out upstairs. (Jonathan Dupaul/Radio-Canada)

The owner and award-winning chef at Coconut Lagoon says his east Ottawa restaurant will be "out of commission for a long time" following a Friday evening fire in the upstairs unit.

Joe Thottungal said he got a call from one of his employees just before 8 p.m. The employee said that a fire had broken out in the two-storey building housing the popular St. Laurent Boulevard restaurant.

"It is a nightmare for any chef or restaurant owner. It is very hard to swallow," said Thottungal, who was out with his family and rushed to the scene as fast as he could.

"My heart was throbbing, you know? I was just thinking, what is happening to my place?"

A fire broke out Friday night in the two-storey building that houses the Coconut Lagoon restaurant. (Scott Stillborn/Ottawa Fire Services)

2 firefighters injured

Ottawa Fire Services said Friday evening that they'd received multiple reports of heavy black smoke coming from the building's roof.

Two firefighters were treated for minor injuries on scene, and at least one was taken to hospital. Paramedics said all occupants of the apartment were outside by the time emergency crews arrived. 

Thottungal said he returned to the restaurant Saturday morning to take a look inside — and the damage was even "more heartbreaking."

"The building looks nice. But inside has very bad damage to the ceiling, to the walls, everything. Water damage and smoke — it's really smoky inside," he said.

The tenants of the upstairs apartment were his staff, Thottungal said, and they were working downstairs at the time of the fire.

They were unhurt, he said, and all their important personal belongings were safe.

Damage caused by the May 22, 2020, fire above the Coconut Lagoon restaurant in east Ottawa. (Jonathan Dupaul/Radio-Canada)

'Just a hindrance'

A former winner of the prestigious Gold Medal Plates competition, Thottungal has also been an important part of Ottawa's efforts to keep people fed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coconut Lagoon was one of a number of restaurants taking part in an initiative called Food For Thought, which has so far served some 20,000 hot meals to vulnerable residents, said Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King. 

"It's disheartening, but I know [they've] indicated that they're going to get back up on their two feet," King said. "That lifts our spirits."

Thottungal said he planned to continue his community work despite the fire, thanks to the fact he now has a second restaurant, Thali, which opened in downtown Ottawa in 2018.

"This is just a hindrance, a little bit, but I will come back as strong as possible," he said. "I'm lucky to have a second restaurant I can operate out of."

As for Coconut Lagoon — which has been operating on St. Laurent Boulevard for the past 17 years and was just rebuilt a couple of years ago — Thottungal said he'd figure out a plan in the coming days.

‘It was shocking to see’

2 years ago
Duration 0:40
Joe Thottungal, owner of Coconut Lagoon, says a fire in the upstairs unit did serious damage to the building, landing “a second blow” to the restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic.

With files from Natalia Goodwin

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