Food is what brought Lee and Yokie Johnson together, and the couple hopes their unique restaurant, Montasia, located in Fishtail, continues their legacy long after they are gone.
For head chef and restaurant owner Lee, food has been linked to every part of his life.
“Food has been the unifying thread my whole life really. I met so many friends through food. I found my wife because of it,” he said.
Lee met wife Yokie at Montana State University when he helped her set up her booth for a cultural exchange on campus called food bazaar.
Yokie was a foreign exchange student from Malaysia, and the booth featured foods that represented her culture. With the help of Lee, her booth was voted as everyone’s favorite.
“We became really good friends when he helped me set up my booth for food bizarre. My booth ended up winning the best booth... represent Malaysia,” Yokie said.
Twenty years of marriage later, and the couple has come full circle. Together they run Montasia, which features both Montanan and Malaysian-style foods. The couple has run the place in the site of the former Cowboy Bar for about a year.
“We met in the kitchen at MSU, and we’ve ended up back in the kitchen now, except now we own the place,” said Lee.
It’s an interesting combination of foods, but luckily the Johnsons are used to doing things a little differently.
Lee and Yokie have both lived in Malaysia on and off over the years. For them, it was important that their daughter, Rose, understands the culture.
“We wanted Rose to know Malaysia, so we’ve taken her there every year since she was a baby,” Lee said.
While living there, Lee developed a successful food business where he sold American food on the streets of Malaysia. For the locals, he was a sight to behold.
“It was called white guy noodles in the local language. And there would be two lines. A line of people taking pictures of the white guy cooking and a line of people waiting to get the food.” Lee said.
Perhaps even more important than his business was the opportunity to learn about the food of his wife’s ancestors. Lee admitted that it was a trying process.
“All the women from my wife’s family taught me something, and some of those lessons are hard learned. They’re hard teachers, old Asian women, but if they love you there’s nothing more rewarding like cooking a recipe to their satisfaction," Lee said.
Montasia used to reside in Cooke City, where it operated only during the summer months. When Yokie received some bad medical news, the couple jumped at the chance to work at a location that ran year-round.
“My cancer came back and I made the decision to do this. We wanted to see if this was a passion or if it could be a business,” Yokie said.
For Yokie, running the restaurant with her family is a unique opportunity that she wants to make the most of.
“I’m not sure how many years I have left, and to be able to spend all this quality time with my family. Watching my daughter grow up and working with my best friend. It’s truly a blessing,” Yokie said.
Now Lee and Yokie get to pass their cuisine on to both their daughter and the community of Montana, thousands of miles away from where it began.
“From the recipes and the tradition of this place, and being able to be here with my daughter and my wife, that’s what makes Montana family businesses so special,” Lee said.