Ting Zheng now calls downtown Dartmouth home, but he grew up more than ten thousand kilometers away in China’s Fujian province. It’s on the southeast coast, with a sub-tropical monsoon climate and celebrated for its sweeping ocean views and lush mountains.
Zheng says growing up there gave him an appreciation of nature that inspired him to study environmental science at university. He took advantage of a unique study program, where he did two years at home and two years abroad. In 2009, he moved to Nova Scotia to complete his undergraduate degree at Dalhousie’s Agricultural campus in Truro. Zheng recalls being smitten immediately by the friendly people and the cooler weather.
“I had no winter where I came from, no snow. I was so excited to see the snow!” says Zheng.
To fund his tuition and living expenses, Zheng took a part-time job in the kitchen at a local sushi restaurant. He was surprised to discover that he had a knack for working with food, and he eagerly accepted his boss’s offer to mentor him on how to run a food establishment.
“I realized I had a talent for it, and I enjoyed it. I tried a few other jobs, but the restaurant is where I felt most comfortable.”
When Zheng felt ready to open his own restaurant, his leasing agent showed him an available a space at King’s Wharf. He says he fell in love with the space immediately. Zheng says he came to downtown Dartmouth by chance, but stayed by choice
“It has such a beautiful view of the ocean,” says Zheng.
In December 2018, Zheng opened downtown Dartmouth’s first all-you-can-eat restaurant: Jukai Japanese and Thai. He says its name nods to both its owners and its oceanside location. Zheng’s English name is Justin and his business partner’s name is Kai. Together, their names create the word “jukai” which means “forest of the sea” in Japanese.
Zheng says the restaurant was an instant success. For the first year, business was mostly dine-in customers looking for the all-you-can-eat experience that Jukai has become renowned for. But as soon as the pandemic hit in spring 2020, Zheng and his team were forced to shift gears quickly.
“We were so stressed. We didn’t know what was happening or how long the lockdown would last. We had to quickly move all our energy to up leveling our take-out game. We did that, and we noticed the same customers coming back again and again.”
Zheng says takeout business has remained robust, even though customers have also returned to the dining room. The popularity of Jukai prompted Zheng to open a sister business a few doors down in the King’s Wharf Anchorage building: The Dahlia Asian-inspired pub.
“The Dahlia is our latest venture. We aim to make it different than other pubs by using Asian spirits and unique ingredients. It’s even different than Jukai!”
Zheng says it has always been his intention to make the Jukai brand a franchise, and he intends to open another restaurant in HRM as soon as possible. The biggest thing holding him back, he says, is the shortage of staffing brought on by the pandemic.
“Sushi chefs are particularly difficult to recruit right now,” says Zheng.
Zheng says he steps into as many roles as needed to keep things running smoothly and he spends most of his time at the restaurants. When he’s not working, he loves to play and watch sports – especially basketball. Jukai even has a special roll dedicated to his favourite team, the Toronto Raptors.
“The Raptor roll contains salmon tempura, cream cheese, avocado, tuna and tempura shrimp. The way the ingredients are laid out, and the way the shrimp tails are positioned at each end, the roll looks just the like the claws on the Raptor’s logo!”
Jukai's Raptor Roll: Ting created it to honour his favourite sports team.
Zheng says he is grateful for the lifestyle and opportunities he’s had since he moved to Canada, and he’s especially pleased to be living and working in downtown Dartmouth. He loves the ease of getting around and the more relaxed pace of life here, compared to the life he left behind in China.
“I love living in Dartmouth. Seeing the ocean everyday reminds me of home, but I do miss my family. I haven’t seen them in more than four years. I really miss my mother’s cooking.”
Portrait photo credit: James Arthur MacLean Photography