As a child, she dreamed of being a school teacher. Now, at 25, Christine Rivera is teaching every day in the kitchen that she runs at Galaxy Taco, an acclaimed modern Mexican eatery in La Jolla, a seaside community of San Diego, CA. Her official title is chef de cuisine, but you also could call her the "Maven of Masa." Galaxy Taco, at barely a year old, is on a shortlist of spots in the nation with high-reaching tortilla programs, and Rivera is hoping to educate diners about quality tortilla-making so the craft becomes valued and appreciated in the same way as artisanal bread-baking.
The chef leads her staff in a daily, hours-long process that requires dedication and commitment. It starts with the maize, specifically non-GMO heirloom blue corn from a single farm in Mexico: The dried field corn is cooked and steeped in alkaline water (a process called nixtamalization) in 100-pound batches overnight, then churned in a custom-made grinder to make the fresh masa dough that gets hand-pressed into tortillas. Rivera says this process makes her feel connected to the family who grows the restaurant's corn and gives her a sense of responsibility to "make it shine."
Rivera says that through this process she feels connected to the family who grows the restaurant's corn and that she feels a responsibility to make it shine" Rivera says the process makes her feel connected to the family who grows their corn, and a responsibility to "make it shine."
Her road to the 2016 Young Guns began at a local culinary school where she was "dead set" on pursuing a career in pastry when her instructor, Joe Orate, encouraged her to apply her talents to the savory side. Orate says Rivera's "patience and character," along with her "laughter and kind demeanor," helped set her apart.
Rivera's first industry job was as a dishwasher at Red Lobster. In 2011, she landed a job at George's at the Cove, a multi-level dining destination in La Jolla — ranked last year as one of Restaurant Business magazine's top-grossing independent restaurants in the US — where she spent a year cooking at its high-volume Ocean Terrace before getting the call to join the majors at George's California Modern, the restaurant group's award-winning fine dining showcase. For two and a half years, Rivera worked through all stations in the famously intense kitchen before being plucked by George's executive chef/partner, Trey Foshee, to help launch Galaxy Taco. Foshee cites Rivera's excellence as a cook along with her willingness to go above and beyond and a personality suited to management as qualities that made her an "obvious choice."
Foshee and Rivera spent a year and a half in research and development for Galaxy Taco, which included, for Rivera, a stage at Cosme in New York and time logged at Orange County's Taco Maria. The result is a casual, modern Mexican menu that includes guacamole topped with local sea urchin, birria-steamed clams, and adobo-rubbed, wood-grilled trout, in addition to, of course, some well-regarded tacos.
Beyond her regular restaurant duties, Rivera also wrangles Galaxy's Taco Takeover Tuesday, a weekly series studded with star chefs. Matt Orlando of Copenhagen's Amass Restaurant and Chipotle's Nate Appleman are just two of the big-name guest chefs who have already graced the San Diego kitchen, with Spoon and Stable's Gavin Kaysen scheduled for mid-July.
Jorge Gaviria of Masienda, who sources special corn for top restaurants like Chicago's Frontera Grill and Broken Spanish in LA, applauds Rivera's efforts, which have helped make Galaxy's tortilla program among the best in the country. But for the young chef, a San Diego native who grew up going to Tijuana every weekend to eat and visit with family, satisfaction comes when her friends and loved ones tell her that she makes the most delicious tortillas they've ever had.
Candice Woo is Eater's San Diego editor.
Christina Rivera is the chef de cuisine at Galaxy Taco in La Jolla, CA. Image by Lyudmila Zotova.
Editors: Dana Hatic and Sonia Chopra
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
See all Young Guns coverage here.