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Inspired by ailing father, U of A student opens Asian fusion restaurant

Gao Feng Zhang juggles the pressures of the classroom, and personal hardship, while running his own restaurant in south Edmonton.

'It's kind of hard for me to do school, the restaurant and deal with my family issues'

University of Alberta student Gao Feng Zhang opened a restaurant to show Edmonton another side of Chinese food. 1:14

Despite pressure of the classroom and heartache as a loved one battles illness, Gao Feng Zhang has embraced the challenge of opening his own restaurant in south Edmonton.

The University of Alberta open studies student is the owner of Mi'Ne, an Asian fusion eatery just a few blocks off campus at 11132 82nd Avenue. The restaurant serves up rice and noodle bowls, curry, crawfish and pork buns. 

Zhang, 22, opened the business with the help of a short-term loan from his parents, with hopes of building a future for himself in Canada.

My father says he's very proud of me.- Gao Feng Zhang

"To be honest, I have met a lot of difficulties. I'm still solving lots of them right now," said Zhang, who often goes by the nickname Teddy.

"But so far, we're trying to push it to the local market, and the local market love it more and more."

Zhang credits his father not only for the financial support, but also for inspiring him to pursue his dreams as an entrepreneur.

'It's a kind of pressure'

As the age of 20, Zhang's father started his own furniture factory in China and enjoyed years of success in the manufacturing business.

"In my family, my dad was very successful," Zhang said. "To me, it's a kind of pressure.

"As a son, you always want to be better than your father. I try my best. I don't know whether I did it or not but my father says he's very proud of me."
Gao Feng Zhang speaks with CBC host Adrienne Pan inside his Asian fusion restaurant Mi'Ne. (CBC)

Zhang's father was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and the disease continues to threaten his health.

The diagnosis sent Zhang into a deep depression, he said, and for a time he struggled with his studies, eventually choosing to opt out of the U of A's engineering program.

His father's health is still failing, but Zhang has a renewed determination than ever to finish school and make the business work.

"I had a tough time the first few years, trying to deal with my father's illness," Zhang said.

"And right now his situation is not very good so it's kind of hard for me to do school, the restaurant and deal with my family issues at the same time." 

I wanted to do something different, in the new way, in the modern way.- Gao Feng Zhang

Like his father, Zhang wants to build something of his own.

The Edmonton food scene is lacking in light, modern Chinese food, he said. He hopes his focus on fresh ingredients and good service makes his business a gathering place for Edmontonians.

The sleek dining space was designed with help from local interior designers, and a core staff of kitchen managers has been hired to ensure day-to-day operations run smoothly.
Zhang opened Mi'Ne in south Edmonton with support from his parents. (CBC)

"I wanted to show the local market that a Chinese food restaurant can do well and bring a different kind of authentic Chinese food to the local market," he said.

"I wanted to do something different, in the new way, in the modern way."

The name of the restaurant is meant to give patrons a sense of ownership over the space.

"We wanted this restaurant to be everybody's restaurant," Zhang said.  "My dad picked the name."

"He is very supportive of this business. Without this support, I [could not have] started this business."