A local grassroots movement to keep vulnerable people fed during the pandemic has picked up more steam than a simmering pressure cooker full of beans.
Food For Thought Ottawa has officially achieved charitable status as of a few weeks ago and is now running its operations out of its newish digs in the Ottawa Train Yards area. It’s continuing to work with partner non-profit organizations to get hot and tasty dinners out to people who could use a proper meal.
The group is led by its volunteer president and founder Sylvain de Margerie, a retired ocean scientist with a life-long passion for food. He’s joined by Ottawa chef and restaurateur Joe Thottungal as director of culinary matters. Thottungal is the owner of Coconut Lagoon and Thali, two popular restaurants that specialize in the South Indian cuisine of his home state of Kerala. Coconut Lagoon is slated to reopen this spring, having suffered a major fire in May 2020.
The men not only donate their time and expertise but also their money to support the cause.
“COVID has triggered a change in our society that we have to be very concerned about,” said de Margerie, referring to the shortage of affordable housing combined with rising inflation that’s driving up food prices. “How are people on a fixed income or on welfare going to survive?”
The organization is delivering its nutritious meals to such groups as homebound seniors who can’t cook for themselves, new immigrants and refugees, and individuals living in motels used as emergency family shelters.
Food For Thought had a goal to serve 365,000 meals by the end of 2021. It passed that goal by the start of this month.
The organization took over its new leased space at 855 Industrial Ave. last May. The location, which already had a kitchen, was formerly home to catering company Culinary Conspiracy.
While the non-profit is driven by volunteers, it has added nearly a dozen people to its payroll, including new executive chef Scot Cunningham. He teaches in the culinary arts program at Algonquin College, which has been very supportive of the initiative.
On Wednesday morning, the staff and volunteers were busy at Food For Thought headquarters preparing that day’s dish: a flavourful chickpea and vegetable curry prepared with spices and coconut milk, served with barley. The menu changes every day. It was veal stew with potatoes on Thursday.
All the food is made fresh from scratch with halal-certified ingredients bought in bulk.
"If you give a good meal to people who are really hungry, they will appreciate it."
When it comes to giving back to the community, Thottungal prefers to offer food. “I only know how to cook,” he said modestly.
He believes food is a gift that can bring a person great satisfaction while gifts of money or material objects can lead a person to keep craving more.
“If you give a good meal to a person, once they are full they will say, ‘Joe, enough. I don’t need anymore.’ If you give a good meal to people who are really hungry, they will appreciate it. It fills their heart and they will smile at you. That is the best gift you can give.”
He also believes in karma, and that good deeds lead to reciprocal results.
Thottungal has distinguished himself in the culinary and broader community. He’s accumulated an impressive collection of trophies and awards for his humanitarian and philanthropic work. Accolades include the Order of Ottawa medal, AFP Ottawa’s Outstanding Individual Philanthropist Award, United Way Community Builder Award, an honorary degree from Algonquin College and Quality of Life Award from St. Joe’s Women’s Centre. He’s also won multiple awards for his culinary skills and has an award-winning cookbook, Coconut Lagoon.
Thottungal’s success in business hasn’t been achieved without years of hard work, long days and financial risks. When he first opened Coconut Lagoon in 2004 on St. Laurent Boulevard near McArthur Avenue, he would watch the cars whiz past his restaurant, one after the other.
“Let me tell you, in the first couple of weeks there was not even one car turning into our parking lot.”
Business did pick up, thanks to positive reviews from local food writer Gay Cook and restaurant critic Anne DesBrisay. “Six months later, we never sat down because we never had time.”
Thottungal, 49, remains grateful for the support he’s received from the community, his customers, his staff (including right-hand man Rajesh Gopi), and his family.
“I have a beautiful wife and three kids,” said Thottungal, who went the traditional route with an arranged marriage. He and Suma have been together for 21 years and have three children, ages 18, 15 and six. They live in Orléans.
The businessman still puts in awfully long days, but likes to start them off by attending morning mass.
When the pandemic began in March 2020, Thottungal started cooking for the community as a way of putting the large quantities of food at his shuttered restaurants to good use. As the demand for meals grew, so did the efforts made by him and de Margerie.
Many people offered to help, from fellow restaurant owners and chefs to food suppliers and foreign embassies. For a time, Food For Thought operated out of the kitchen at the Château Laurier.
The organization has felt pressure to keep going, knowing so many people depend on it for delicious, healthy meals they couldn’t otherwise afford.
“It’s not like they’re dying of hunger, but their life is measurably shortened,” said de Margerie of the correlation between lower incomes and lower life expectancy.
Food For Thought is now raising funds through grants and public donations. It’s offering meals that can be ordered online for $10, with half that cost going toward purchasing a nutritious meal for someone in need.
The organization believes that a proper meal can play an important role in making someone’s day more productive.
“I think there’s something that we offer that’s very special beyond just, say, cans of foods that will fill stomachs,” said communications and marketing manager Mark Charette. “It’s food that fills people’s souls, gives them energy and helps them go on with their day and accomplish what they need to accomplish.”