For much of his career, Johnny Church has jumped around kitchens. Now, he might have found a place to settle for a long time to come. Church recently took over as Corporate Executive Chef of Golden Entertainment Inc. and is charged with overseeing the culinary programs at Golden’s eight casinos, including Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower’s Top of the World restaurant, and PT’s Entertainment Group and its nearly 60 taverns across the state.
Since moving to Las Vegas in 1994, he’s worked at a variety of restaurants, including as executive chef at Aureole, and Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood and RX Boiler Room. He also helped create MTO Café and Artisanal Foods Café, as a chef-partner. His career has also been well awarded, beginning with being named one of Las Vegas’s “Rising Chefs” by Wine Spectator early in his career. He was Vegas Seven’s “Best Chef, Off Strip” in 2015. Recently, he was the winner of the 500th episode of the Food Network show, Chopped.
How’d you get into the business?
I grew up in Michigan and my mom was an entrepreneur–she owned a skating rink, a restaurant and a commercial cleaning business. I found myself working in the kitchen and snack bars. I learned the ins and outs of the hospitality and restaurant industries from a very young age.
When did you know it’d be a career?
It was after I graduated from high school. Back in Michigan, at least in Flint, many of the jobs after college were careers in the automotive industry. My family decided to move west to Las Vegas, and I started cooking. I started with fast food and worked the graveyard shift as a breakfast cook before landing a job at Tenaya Creek Brewery. I continued to grow in the industry from there.
How’d you end up at Golden Entertainment?
It is kind of funny; in 2006 I was going to work for Golden, when it was Golden Gaming. I decided I wanted to stay on the road I was going down and work two years here and two years there. Steve Arcana, the COO, said he’d hire me one day. And here we are.
How do you balance the menus of the PT taverns and a highly respected restaurant like Top of the World?
There’s not very many positions out there like this–to work in this wide range of concepts. With Golden, whether it is PT’s or Top of the World, their aim is to be the best in that category. The food at PT’s is fantastic, it just needs to be approachable. Top of the World serves exceptional high-end cuisine. To deliver both of these, and more, requires a great team. At PT’s we have Scott Green, the director of culinary operations, who has built a phenomenal crew. I focus on development and refreshing menus. It’s what I like to do, be the creative point. I’m at the right time, right place. They have a lot of concepts they want to refresh and concept out and that’s what I like to do.
What are you doing at Top of the World?
Sourcing ingredients, seasonality, quality products and keeping it simple–I have been working with Top of the World chefs on a new menu for a few months now. We are finally rolling that out in July. I can’t wait.
How’d you end up on Chopped?
For me, I really didn’t want to do it. I’m competitive in nature, but not typically when cooking. They didn’t mention it in the show, but I said the reason I wanted to do the show was to show my son you have to work outside your comfort zones. That was my motivation.
I’m sure you’re glad you won though, right?
Yeah, for sure. It was a great experience!
You do a lot with “Create Change Now,” to help children understand healthy relationships with food. Why is that important?
So many illnesses are related to childhood obesity and fast food is so readily available and grocery stores sometimes don’t offer many healthy options, so basically our goal is to go in and say here’s a small carrot and here’s what you can do with it, take a peeler and here’s a simple peeled salad and simple vinaigrette. That’s been rewarding for me.
Why have you not really left Las Vegas?
I did for a while–I went to California for several years and worked, and it was amazing. But, my son is here, and Vegas is my home and I do enjoy it.
What’s in your future? Will you be at Golden for a while?
This is a great step in my career and there’s so much opportunity to grow, even to build my own name and brand with the company. It’s a great opportunity and a blessed time to be where I am. I am excited to offer my experience as the company goes through such a dynamic time of growth.