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 Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.

Entertainment Videos
Sadelle’s in Las Vegas makes a grilled cheese with an inverted bagel
Michael Vargas, executive sous chef at Sadelle’s at Bellagio in Las Vegas, inverts an everything bagel and grills it with Swiss, cheddar and Muenster cheeses to make the Inverted Bagel Grilled Cheese. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures
Kassandra Lopez at Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures. (Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Making gluten-free pizza at Good Pie in Las Vegas
Good Pie owner/pizzaiola Vincent Rotolo makes his gluten-free pizza.
Rockabilly fans enjoy Las Vegas weather poolside
Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender runs Thursday, April 18th through Sunday, April 21st with a huge car show on Saturday featuring The Reverend Horton Heat, The Delta Bombers and The Coasters. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Brownie sundae at VegeNation in Las Vegas is completely vegan
Donald Lemperle, chef/owner of VegeNation in Las Vegas and nearby Henderson, NV, makes his sundae with ice cream made with coconut and almond milks, a brownie made with coconut flour and oil and organic sugar and cacao, and fresh fruit. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Taste of the Town: Henderson Booze District
Those who like to support local businesses and sample local products will find the best concentration in an unlikely spot: a Henderson industrial park.
Founder of Las Vegas theater talks about a favorite play
Ann Marie Pereth, founder of A Public Fit Theatre Company, speaks to the Review-Journal about which play she would see every day if only given one option. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N interactive exhibit
The new exhibit features original and recreated props and plenty of interactive features. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Writer's Block and Lucy are open in Las Vegas
The Writer's Block and Lucy are open in Las Vegas (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas ice cream shop offers everything in the kitchen sink
Have you ever wanted to eat an ice cream sundae out of a kitchen sink? Who hasn't, right? At Sloan's, located inside the Venetian, you can do just that. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Maxie’s in Las Vegas puts eggs Benedict in a box
Chef David Mangual at Maxie’s in The Linq Promenade in Las Vegas makes his eggs Benedict in a brioche “box” layered with spinach, bacon and tomatoes and topped with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Caviar Twinkie Served at Stripsteak in Las Vegas
Stripsteak Executive Pastry Chef Vivian Chang and Chef Gerald Chin create a novel savory food item that looks like a familiar sweet treat at the restaurant in Las Vegas. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal)
NAB attendees battle to qualify for Fortnite event
NAB is sponsoring an online video game event with Epic Games’ Fortnite allowing attendees to qualify to go head to head with top players. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Arctic Shrimp Sandwich at Saga near Las Vegas
Chef Gert Kvalsund, a native of Norway, founded Saga Pastry + Sandwich in Henderson to give Scandinavians a taste of home. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Guy Fieri and Sammy Hagar talk UNLVino
Guy Fieri and Sammy Hagar talk about the upcoming UNLVino vent. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Christie Brinkley at Smith & Wollensky
Christie Brinkley, in town for her run in “Chicago” at the Venetian Theatre, paid a visit to the Grand Canal Shoppes’ still-under-construction Smith Wollensky on Monday for a ceremonial first toast at the bar. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Two artists create a mural for peace in Las Vegas
2 artists create a mural for peace in Las Vegas (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Inside Kaos nightclub and dayclub
A look at new club at Palms.
CinemaCon Brings Theater Professionals To Caesars
CinemaCon is not just celebs, it's also a place where theater owners can browse the latest in seats, projectors and concessions. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas restaurants provide a taste of ballpark food
The Las Vegas Ballpark, home to the Las Vegas Aviators, will serve food from Giada De Laurentiis and a team of favorite local restaurants. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
Taste of the Town: Bobby Flay Opens Shark at the Palms - VIDEO
Bobby Flay opens Shark at the Palms; his first high-end restaurant in 15 years.
Chef Marc Marrone at T-Mobile Arena
Chef Marc Marrone has opened a bao cart at T-Mobile Arena. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bellagio fountains celebrate 'Game of Thrones'
A medley of the theme for HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and the song “Winter Is Here” from the show premiered at the Bellagio Fountains water show on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday, March 31, 2019. The new number will run in rotation through April 13. The series premieres its eighth and final series on April 14. (Mick Akers/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegan Aunt Chippy talks about being on Jimmy Kimmel's show
Concetta Potenza, Aunt “Chippy” to Jimmy Kimmel, talks about her first time being featured on her nephew’s show. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The "Flight Unknown" At Bar Centro at Bazaar Meats Las Vegas Features 5 Innovative Cocktails
The "Flight Unknown" At Bar Centro At Bazaar Meats Las Vegas Features 5 Innovative Cocktails (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Cotton candy crowns pancakes in Las Vegas
At Maxie’s at The Linq Promenade in Las Vegas, executive chef David Mangual fills pancakes with fruit and cream cheese and piles on pastel cotton candy, which is melted in a stream of chocolate syrup. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
Bananas Foster Pancakes go up in flames at The Stove near Las Vegas
Chef Antonio Nunez at The Stove in Henderson, near Las Vegas, flames the pancakes tableside for a fiery presentation. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
El Loco Rollercoaster at Circus Circus' Adventuredome
The El Loco rollercoaster opened at the Circus Circus' Adventuredome in February 2014. It features a 90-foot ascent, followed by a drop that produces a negative 1.5 "verticle G," a 180-degree turn, and reverse 240-degree roll that turns into an inverted drop. The coaster reaches a maximum speed of 45 mph and is the only indoor coaster of it's kind in the U.S., and is the second indoor El Loco coaster in the world, according to MGM Resorts.
Bartending flair competition at the Nightclub & Bar Show
Highlights from the ten contestants who competed for the Shake It Up Flair and Classic Competition at the Nightclub & Bar Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae
Justin Kingsley Hall shares details on his next gig
Chef Justin Kinglsey hall shares some details about the newArts District restaurant he's developing with Kim Owens. (Al Mancini/Las Vegs Review-Journal)
Home Front Page Footer Listing