Las Vegas fine dining chef takes over for Golden Entertainment

“I think it’s great that this restaurant, like, moves. That’s the craziest thing.”

Johnny Church is sitting at a table at Stratosphere’s Top of the World restaurant, taking in its spectacular view of the valley as it rotates at a rate of one revolution per hour. Having lived in Las Vegas since 1994, it’s not his first time in the landmark dining room. But the full appeal wasn’t immediately obvious on his first visit.

“I think I was super-hammered the first time I came here, and didn’t realize it moved,” he explains.

Today, however, Church knows quite a bit about Top of the World. In March, the 40-year-old was hired as corporate executive chef for Golden Entertainment, the company that owns PT’s Entertainment Group and last October purchased the Stratosphere, two local Arizona Charlie’s properties and the Aquarius casino in Laughlin.

Church oversees all food served in those resorts, as well as the 59 PT’s Pub, PT’s Gold, PT’s Ranch, PT’s Brewing Company, Sean Patrick’s, Sierra Gold, Sierra Junction and SG Bar locations throughout Nevada, and casinos in Pahrump and Maryland. That’s more than 130 restaurants in all.

From fine to casual

“You go from foie gras to chicken wings in this company now,” Church says of his new responsibilities. “And I’ve been doing that in my career, too.”

Church has done fast food to Michelin-starred cuisine for decades in the culinary industry. His first restaurant experience was during his “very much blue-collar” childhood in Flint, Michigan, where his family’s businesses included a roller skating rink, a commercial cleaning business and a steakhouse that hosted boxing matches on weekends. Everyone pitched in, and Church’s assignments included working the snack bar, washing dishes and dumping trash.

Church was in high school when the auto industry crashed and Flint’s economy foundered; the family moved to Las Vegas. On his first day in town, Church landed a job at a KFC. He recalls various restaurant jobs, days spent skateboarding and nights watching bands such as Helmet and Dinosaur Jr. at the Huntridge Theater.

At age 20, while working at Tenaya Creek Brewery, he discovered his passion for cooking.

“It opened my eyes to proper technique and seasonality and how food impacts beverage,” he says of the local brewery, where he progressed from pizza cook to sous chef.

Dissuaded from entering culinary school by the cost of tuition, Church resolved to “work my way up” the fine-dining ladder, starting with a job at the newly opened Stirling Club at Turnberry Place in 2001. That’s where he met legendary chef Charlie Palmer, the first of many mentors who would guide his career. Over the next two decades, Church would navigate a constellation of culinary stars, logging time in the kitchens of Andre Rochat, Jean Joho, Bradley Ogden, Michael Mina and Rick Moonen, among others.

Home and family

Church’s career path brought him briefly to California, with stints in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, but he says fatherhood eventually brought him back to Las Vegas.

“I needed to be here with my son.”

That father-son relationship inspires many of the chef’s extracurricular activities, including his recent appearance on Food Network’s “Chopped.”

“I didn’t want to do the whole ‘Chopped’ thing. But I was trying to show my son that sometimes in life you have to work outside of your comfort zone, which sucks, but you have to do it and get over it.”

He not only got over his fears, he also won. His son, John Craig Church III, who lives in Las Vegas with his mother, was watching when the episode aired on June 5.

“He thought it was really very cool,” Church says. “He called me that night.”

A full 360

As Top of the World spins, Church glances out on the valley. Nestled among the tiled suburban rooftops, in literally every direction, dozens of casual neighborhood kitchens are now just as much his responsibility as this fine-dining landmark.

“That’s really cool that it does a full 360 (degree) rotation, and you can see the whole valley, and see how far this valley has come,” he says.

“When I came here, East Fremont was just trashed. To just to see what’s going on, and all the cats and restaurants down there. And (Golden Entertainment owner Blake Sartini’s) definitely involved in the local scene and pulling that in. So there should be some cool stuff happening here in the future that I’m really excited about.”

Customers will get their first glimpse of that future when Top of the World rolls out a new menu later this summer.

Work-life balance

A chef’s life can involve grueling hours. So Johnny Church is adamant about “working smarter” so he has time for other activities.

He grew up in Michigan, so Red Wings hockey is in his blood. But the Vegas Golden Knights have given him a new home team to cheer for.

“Honestly I’m a Golden Knights fan since the season started. Vegas is my home, and it’s a tough commute to go see a Red Wings game.”

He and his son, John Craig Church III, went to several games during the team’s historic first season. A high point of the year was having the chance to cook for Marc-Andre Fleury and his wife at Aureole. He admits he was a bit torn on what to wear when then Golden Knights hosted the Red Wings on Oct. 17.

“I didn’t wear a jersey that day.”

With hockey on hiatus, the chef has more time for other pursuits. At night, he’ll often catch a favorite band in concert. During the days, he likes to take advantage of the desert’s natural attractions, even in the summer heat.

“I’m really into the outdoors,” he explains. “This time of year, I go hiking up at Mount Charleston.”

One place you aren’t likely to find him, however, is on those thrill rides atop the Stratosphere tower. The only one he’s ridden is The Big Shot, which propels riders upward 16-feet from the tower’s mast. When asked to pose for a photo being dangled over the edge of the tower in the X-Scream, his response is definitive: “I’m not doing that, no (expletive) way.” He does leave open the possibility of braving the Skyjump’s 829-foot leap.

“Maybe,” he says of the controlled free-fall. “I’m thinking about it, if I can get my son to go.”

Making change happen

For the past five years, Johnny Church has been putting his culinary talents to work for people who probably don’t have the luxury of eating in the type of gourmet restaurants in which he often works.

“I’m doing a lot of stuff with Create a Change Now, which is teaching kids healthier eating habits, and putting gardens in schools,” he says.

The local nonprofit organizes visits by chefs to local at-risk elementary schools, many of which are in neighborhoods with little access to nutritious food.

“There are certain areas, like Booker Elementary on Martin Luther King,” Church explains, “where they only have fast-food around in their neighborhood, and they have (a supermarket) that doesn’t really even have much produce.”

Farmers and volunteers help establish gardens to teach students about produce, and how home-grown vegetables differ from what they may find in stores. Food they grow is available for them to take home, and chefs give preparation tips.

“I do a simple thing where I take multi-colored carrots and use a peeler and teach them they can go home and make a salad and a simple vinaigrette, lemon, local honey, olive oil and a whisk,” Church says. “They’re like ‘Oh my God I can go home and make this for my family!’ ”

Contact Al Mancini at amancin @reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.

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