“The mochi muffin has taken on a life of its own. Often, we don’t have enough to supply demand,” said Timber Manhart, who carries the pastry at both locations of his café, Catahoula Coffee in Berkeley and Richmond.
If you’ve been in local shops like Catahoula, Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar, Blue Willow Teaspot or Asha Tea House, you may have noticed mochi muffins among the baked goods offered for sale. These golden-baked confections with black and white sesame seeds sprinkled on top have a deceivingly unassuming appearance. But one bite of a mochi muffin is enough to concede that the hype about these pastries is well deserved. A crispy, crunchy and deeply caramelized exterior is the toothsome first act to a dense, chewy center. Dipping a mochi muffin into coffee provides a whole different taste dimension.
Third Culture Bakery makes these gluten-free muffins with mochiko rice flour, milled from a sweet, glutinous rice from Koda Farms, a family of fifth generation rice farmers in the Central Valley. Organic butter from Petaluma Creamery and coconut milk cream give the muffins their richness. Coconut sugar, with a lower glycemic index value than many sweeteners, imparts an almost savory toffee flavor. Pandan, a large-leaf, South Asian herb, as ubiquitous as vanilla in the West (but more labor-intensive to use, as it requires pounding the leaves and extracting the liquid), gives the muffin a floral, grassy sweetness. The round, flat Japanese sesame seeds add a toasty flavor.
As popular as these muffins are, it’s surprising to hear that the owners of Berkeley-based Third Culture Bakery, Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu, started their business by chance.
Taiwan-born Shyu studied at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, graduating with a degree in fashion and specializing in visual marketing and merchandising. He worked as a sales manager at companies like Coach and Giorgio Armani and had no professional history with cooking. That all changed in 2014.
“I connected with a pastry chef and we decided to do something together. She was making custom 3D cakes at the time. I had no food experience, but I liked the idea of cupcakes and suggested [starting] a bakery catering service,” Shyu said. The two founded cupcake company, We the Minis in Oakland. “We both baked, but she was in charge of the kitchen and ingredients, while I handled sales, marketing, branding and front of the house stuff.”
Not long after, Shyu’s partner decided to head back to the Midwest to help her family with a new restaurant, leaving him to manage the busy, growing bakery himself. “It was a crash course in learning everything baking. I just shadowed her and picked up everything as we went. I was left baking everything, handling catering, administration, delivering, setting up for our farmers markets and festivals, balancing books, everything.”
Butarbutar also had an unconventional path to becoming a baker. He grew up in Indonesia, arriving at UC Berkeley to study toxicology and the effects of pesticides on insects. He enjoyed his studies, but his first love was cooking, which was his hobby since he was a young child. After graduating from Cal, he struggled to find work in his field and took a job working at an underground pop-up restaurant run by Lazy Bear chef and blogger David Barzelay. Eventually he found an office job in toxicology.
“But I knew from the bottom of my heart that I loved baking,” said Butarbutar.
Enabled by the cottage food law, Butarbutar started his own bakery, Sam’s Patisserie, baking pastries with Asian flavors out of his home kitchen, popping up at the Westbrae Biergarten and other events. Sales took off and he quit his office job to focus on baking full time. He moved his operations into the kitchen at Catahoula Coffee on Fourth Street.
“Sam sort of just showed up one day and kind of never left,” said Manhart. “He began to experiment with creating new products and hit upon the mochi muffin. As he grew his business, it felt like a mutually beneficial arrangement for both of our companies.”
Shyu and Butarbutar were each running their own businesses when they met at a monthly networking event for bakers in Oakland. Shyu was wondering how he’d gotten into baking given his background in business. Butarbutar was struggling with invoicing and the business side of things.
“We both wanted a fresh start,” said Shyu.
When they met, it became obvious that a collaboration would be an asset to them both. They closed their individual businesses and decided to start a new one together, each focusing on what they do best. Butarbutar does the baking and Shyu handles the business side of things, including product and staff training, drawing on skills he learned working at Armani. They called their new wholesale business Third Culture Bakery.
“’Third culture’ refers to kids born into and raised in a culture different from their parents. We thought that captured our project really well,” said Shyu.
At first, they did everything themselves, from baking to delivery.
“The first five months were tough. We basically didn’t sleep,” Shyu said. “We’d bake all night and then fan out through the East Bay and over the bridge to make deliveries. We’d drive home and watch the sun rise.”
Third Culture provides baked goods to nearly 40 shops throughout the Bay Area. Catahoula Coffee is its biggest account. For the moment, the bakery is working to capacity and has stopped taking on new clients, though that’s likely to change soon.
Besides mochi muffins, Third Culture bakes custard cakes in matcha, churro and Thai tea flavors, as well as scones, cakes, croissants and other pastries, many highlighting Asian ingredients. Although these other baked goods aren’t gluten-free like the mochi muffin, the ingredients are just as carefully sourced. The matcha in the cakes, for example, is imported from Uji, Japan.
“It’s shade grown and comes from the first harvest, so it’s not too bitter,” said Butarbutar. Third Culture also offers the matcha for sale in a white bag with its distinctive logo, an unbroken circle, painted in watercolor blues.
Shyu and Butarbutar’s partnership extends beyond their commercial kitchen. They’re domestic partners too.
“As gay business owners, we really want to be leaders in the LGBT community,” said Shyu. “When people see others who are out, they see that as hope. We’re proud to have a diverse staff. I like to think that the mochi muffin symbolizes equality and inclusiveness.”
Where to get Third Culture pastries in the East Bay
Alchemy Collective Café and Roaster, Asha Tea House, Bartavelle Coffee and Wine Bar, Blue Willow Teaspot (weekends only), Catahoula Kafeegarten, Highwire Coffee Roasters (coming soon), 1951 Coffee Company
Highwire Coffee Roasters (coming soon)