Blossoming under big sky

Yokie Johnson brings a new flavor to Fishtail


Yokie Johnson radiates the essence of flowers, embodying beauty, change and growth. Most days, you will find her working her magic at MontAsia in Fishtail, a restaurant located in the old Cowboy Bar and Supper Club, that she runs with her husband, Lee. Their cuisine is getting noticed. Recently, they received a nod from the James Beard Foundation when Lee was nominated as a semi-finalist for Best Chef: Mountain. 

Even still, Lee deflects and credits his wife for their success.

 “Yokie is a ball of positive energy — she’s so sweet, pure, good and hopeful,” Lee says.

Those qualities have allowed her to blossom in life while traveling from her childhood home of Melaka, Malaysia, to Big Sky country, completing a master’s degree, working at the Stillwater mine as an engineer and starting MontAsia while battling cancer.   

At each juncture, challenges emerged requiring strength and ingenuity. Her given name is Yoke Pei, “but I don’t really use that,” she says. She prefers Yokie, the Chinese word for jade, a stone that is believed to bring love compassion, and self-love. It also holds the powers of confidence, acceptance and health. 

In January 1997, Johnson journeyed halfway around the world to establish roots in Montana. Her Malay high school “helped send me to school,” Yokie says. “Most of the students picked the UK or Australia, so I picked the furthest I could go, the United States,” applying at MSU Bozeman and Purdue University.  

Although the Catholic school she attended paid for her airfare and tuition to Big Sky country, with her parents helping in a small way, she still needed money for living expenses. While enrolled in chemical engineering studies she was restricted to being employed only 30 hours per week to retain her financial aid, so she worked the maximum hours cleaning the student union building. She managed to supplement her income with an additional job at a Chinese restaurant that paid her under the table.

Johnson worked the night shift at the university where she was often asked to set up the ballroom for events. “There was nobody there to help me,” she laments, but then she met Lee, who was the sous chef in the kitchen. “He was the first one to offer help. He would help me set up after his shift.” 

Through her stomach, he continued to reach her heart.

 “I was always hungry. I didn’t have any money and he made me a duck sandwich,” she says. Living in the dorms introduced her to unfamiliar American food practices. “I did not eat cereal with milk. I would put in hot water,” she says, which often brought “weird looks” from her dorm mates. But “I loved it, the culture shock. There was all this candy and soda I could drink.”

 The weather also tripped her up. “I had not seen snow,” she says with a laugh. “I had butt pads because I fell a lot. I didn’t know how to walk on snow and ice.” Not having the correct clothing and footwear only made it more difficult to navigate around campus.

With the Malaysian economy in a recession, Johnson’s parents were reluctant about continuing her education in the United States, but after attending a recruiting seminar, she found a job selling Bibles.

To attend the training for her new job in Nashville, she needed transportation and also needed to learn how to drive. “I bought a car for $100, a Chevy. A long car, a boat,” she says. She passed her driving exam and headed south. “I got a life-sized doll so it looked like I was not traveling alone.”

She played by the rules to get by, but “got into trouble a lot.” She purchased a radio at Walmart and returned it within the designated time for a legal refund. Then she would buy the product again and take it back. She bought a color TV with the same methodology. “I would buy it again until Walmart banned me,” she says with a laugh.

Through the years she continued to date Lee as he pursued his teaching credentials. She finally had the means and opportunity to feed him instead. 

“I invited him to my apartment in 2000 and made him dinner. I made shrimp with the shell on” and because chickens are small in Malaysia, “I thought a game hen was a chicken,” she says with a laugh. This was the same year she entered the graduate program for chemical engineering.

She married Lee in the Bozeman courthouse on Aug. 8, 2002, picking the eighth month and eighth day as a fortuitous time to tie the knot. In Chinese culture, the number 8 foretells good luck. A celebration in Malaysia took place the following spring.

Their daughter, Rose, came into the world in 2008. Two years later, Johnson’s mother in Malaysia took ill. Her husband and daughter traveled to Malaysia to help in her care as Yokie couldn’t leave the states because of immigration restrictions. In 2014, she was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in a ceremony at Mammoth Hot Springs.

“Montana was the only state I knew. I was in school for many years here. My friends were here. I fell in love here. Cooke City was a familiar place,” Yokie says.

In 2017 Johnson noticed an oddity on her breast. Because she was not yet 40 years old, she delayed getting a mammogram because insurance didn't cover the cost. Months later, a breast biopsy identified a tumor. Surgery removed involved lymph nodes while leaving one to be treated with chemotherapy. In 2018, she had a double mastectomy and began chemotherapy.

“If I would go back in time, I would really push myself to go get a mammogram,” she says today.

With impending chemo treatments, Lee gave up his job as the ProStart coordinator for the Montana Restaurant Association to insure she made her appointments.

The treatment “ruined some of my nerves,” she says. “I felt miserable with sores in my mouth. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I was nauseous.” Her treatments continue to today, six years later.

Because acne left her skin hyperpigmented, she has painted her body with tattoos of flowers and snakes. Her shoulder bears a burst of colorful roses in honor of her daughter, Rose.

Around the time of her cancer challenges, she kindled a desire to own a restaurant. The couple found a small kiosk in Cooke City and started MontAsia with al fresco seating. While she continued to work at the Stillwater mine, her husband cooked the Malaysian and Chinese food he learned from her mother and grandmother, and integrated the food he knew as a fifth-generation Montanan. Yokie helped on her days off. For four summers, the three of them operated the business by day, living in their van at night, along with their poodle, Vinnie. 

In 2022, the Cowboy Bar, established in the 1900s in Fishtail, came up for sale. Although the Johnsons wanted to be in Red Lodge, they couldn’t pass up the opportunity of buying a place for their venture.

Although the pool table remains in the back of the restaurant and the old wood bar dominates the room, the animal mounts and salad bar are gone, replaced with paper crafted animals such as a dragon, a lion and a cat. Half the menu offers dishes inspired by Malaysia, including chicken curry and kung pao, while Big Sky fare includes a smash burger and sirloin steak. They also serve yak curry, with meat produced from the Painted KC Ranch. 

At MontAsia, Yokie works all of the house while her husband controls the back of the house. Her 17-year-old daughter steps in to help when she’s not at her dance classes or performances and not working on the lessons from her father’s home schooling. 

When asked what Lee means to her, she responds, “Everything.” For his part, Lee says, “Now after 20 plus years of marriage, it becomes impossible to describe how I feel about her, she’s my everything.”

Over the years, the couple has sprouted and nurtured new ideas. “A lot of times, we have ideas that only work because the other person figured out how to make it happen,” she says.

As the Johnsons remain open to new adventures, they know they will do it while nourishing others from near and far, growing as a family and letting Yokie do what she does best, blossom. 


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