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[Chef Talk]

From Downtown to the Strip, chef Johnny Church gets it done

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Veteran chef Johnny Church pulls triple duty at MTO Café, RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room. How?
Photo: L.E. Baskow

On an average workday, Johnny Church runs the kitchen at Downtown’s friendly MTO Café from 7 to 11 a.m., then jets to the Strip to cook and supervise everything at Rick Moonen’s two Mandalay Bay restaurants, RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room. It begs the question: How?

“I’m just driven and motivated, and fortunate to get to do what I love,” Church says. “It’s hard, yeah, but I’m trying to be a good dad and good fiancé, too.”

Church is also hosting a Mexican-themed pop-up dinner with several local chefs on April 27 at MTO ($60, 380-8229). And on top of all that, he took some time to chat with us.

How do you keep things new and fresh at your restaurants? Every Saturday at RM, instead of meetings, everybody puts up a dish and we all taste and critique them. That’s how I like to create new menu items, and how we run our team. Everybody contributes.

Where did these MTO pop-ups come from? We’ve been talking about maybe going to breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the Sunday dinners are sort of a test drive. We’ll see how they go, but really, they’re just about having fun.

What do you cook at home? My son is 6, and he likes to make pizza. He goes half-pepperoni and half-cheese. Now he says, “Why order it when we can make it?” He’s definitely my kid.

Are the Strip and Downtown two different restaurant universes? Well, yes. We’ll have pretty mellow days down here [at MTO] and then I’ll go [to the Strip] and a convention will be in town, so I know at lunchtime we’re gonna do 300 covers and then 400 downstairs and 400 upstairs for dinner. It can be pretty intense over there, but sometimes it’s crazy here, too. At MTO we are still building momentum. Some weekends we just get clobbered. But they are different beasts.

You’ve been in Las Vegas for years and worked in lots of different restaurants. Was there one gig that shaped your career? Definitely AJ’s [Steakhouse, formerly at Hard Rock Hotel]. That was the first time I was chef of my own room, and it was such a cool steakhouse. But also getting to work with Bradley Ogden [at Caesars Palace] was amazing because he was in the kitchen most days, on the cutting board. His using the best quality ingredients and focusing on seasonality really drove me in this direction, and Rick [Moonen] is like that, too. He wants the best, always. Never sacrifice quality—that’s how I want to be when I grow up.

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Brock Radke is Las Vegas Weekly's food editor and author of the Strip-focused column The Incidental Tourist. He has written ...

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