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Flavors Moment: 2024 James Beard Foundation Semifinalists Best Chef: Mountain – Chefs Nick Steen Gullings and Lee Johnson

From left to right: Executive Chef Nick Steen Gullings of Walkers in downtown Billings has been nominated for a second time as a semifinalist from the James Beard Foundation as Best Chef: Mountain. For Executive Chef Lee Johnson of MontAsia in Fishtail, this is his first time as a semifinalist in the regional Best Chef category.
Stella Fong
From left to right: Executive Chef Nick Steen Gullings of Walkers in downtown Billings has been nominated for a second time as a semifinalist from the James Beard Foundation as Best Chef: Mountain. For Executive Chef Lee Johnson of MontAsia in Fishtail, this is his first time as a semifinalist in the regional Best Chef category.

Kay Erickson: For the 2024 James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards nine made the list from Montana. Stella Fong, host of Flavors Under the Big Sky talks to two semifinalists from the Best Chef: Mountain category. In the world of food this is comparable to nominated for an Academy Award.    

Stella Fong: Chefs Nick Steen Gullings of Walkers in Billings and Lee Johnson of MontAsia were two of the semifinalists for Best Chef: Mountain.

Walkers first opened in the Old Chamber Building in 1993 to move into its current location ten years later. Since Chef Gullings joined the team in 2017, he has now received two nods from the James Beard Foundation. So how did it begin for the chef that serves up cuisine that he touts as adventurous regionally farmed food with a hang that won’t be soon forgotten?

Nick Steen Gullings: I started Walkers as the chef and general manager, and I came in originally with the idea of being a partner with Bill Honaker when he was here. The idea was always to give him the opportunity to retire and for more or less, he was able to retire during my time and COVID hit, and he had to come back in a little bit.

Stella Fong: Gullings started making changes to Walkers when he stepped into the restaurant in 2017.

Nick Steen Gullings: We remodeled the restaurant. We put like a ton of money into it to modernize it and we see ourselves as the urban dining center for Montana and we really see ourselves as the people pushing the envelope every day.

Stella Fong: Pushing the envelope is what Chef Gullings does best, always surprising the diner.

Nick Steen Gullings: And we did a dish with octopus and smoked potatoes, popcorn, and corn puree.

Stella Fong: The menu changes seasonally at Walkers. Gullings is always thinking, always creating.

Nick Steen Gullings: How do I make some cool Polynesian Montanan food? And we came back and its hoisin glaze and it’s Montana pork ribs and they’re braised in tamarind and garlic and ginger and all these other things. Then they fall off the bone, but they’ve got this sauce on them that just glazes them and they’re sticky. They’re unbelievable.

Stella Fong: Unbelievable is still the sentiment for Gullings after receiving news of his nomination.

Nick Steen Gullings: This is something that I am proud of. This is the second time and the first time it was overshadowed by what it felt like was the end of the world at that point, but this is for Billings. This is for Montana. This is putting us relevant. I set out when I moved to Billings 8 years ago to put Billings on the food map.

Stella Fong: On the food map in Fishtail is MontAsia, owned by Yokie and Lee Johnson. He’s Montana and she’s Malaysia. He’s in the kitchen and she’s all over the house. The Johnsons bought the old Cowboy Bar a year ago, transforming it from an old steak house and waterhole to a family restaurant serving food inspired from Montana and Malaysia. So how did Johnson find out about his nomination?

Lee Johnson: My wife started screaming upstairs and I thought something was wrong. I thought she maybe grabbed something off a shelf or something and so I was just wrapping up something downstairs and I started to walk towards the bedroom, and she came around the corner. She kept screaming “lou gong, lou gong, lou gong, lou gong” which means husband, husband. She’s shouting for me. She was all excited.

Stella Fong: The Johnsons move from a small kiosk in Cooke City last year to this a much larger space has brought many challenges.

Lee Johnson: But there’s no doubt that opening it was a huge risk and opening Malaysian and Montana fusion restaurant in Fishtail, Montana, it’s a tremendous risk.

Stella Fong: So whose idea was it in the Johnson family to open MontAsia?

Lee Johnson: This is Yokie’s dream. I mean she made me do this. She manifested this restaurant and sometimes I brought on board just out of her momentum.

Stella Fong: And what was that momentum?

Lee Johnson: And I think her dream has always been to make people happy, to serve people and to introduce people to Malaysian culture.

Stella Fong: Another unique feature of MontAsia is yak meat sourced from Painted KC Ranch.

Lee Johnson: It’s a great meat because it’s so approachable and comparable to beef taste-wise. It doesn’t have any of the gaminess you’re going to see in like deer or elk. It’s pretty similar to bison with the exception that it’s little bit richer and little sweeter.

Stella Fong: So from the chef who runs a restaurant that serves noodles and curry alongside steak and burger, what are his feelings about being recognized by the James Beard Foundation.

Lee Johnson: I’m really excited for Montana. What a great year for Montana. I think Montana had nine nominations this year. I believe it’s the most we have ever had. We’re just lucky to be at the right place at the right time.

Stella Fong: Many congratulations to Lee Johnson and Nick Steen Gullings. This is Stella Fong for YPRadio news.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.