A third culture kid is someone who grew up in a different culture from their parents, existing in between two worlds and molding themselves into a combination of both. This spirit of blending cultures is embodied perfectly by the Berkeley-based bakery of the same name, run by Wenter Shyu and his husband, Chef Sam Butarbutar.
“Growing up as third culture kids, the term helped us grapple with our identities. It describes our pastries and our vision for our foods and products perfectly,” explained Shyu.
Third Culture Bakery’s most famous menu item is its signature mochi muffin, which at its core is based on a Southeast Asian steamed layered cake called kue lapi. The amalgamation of Asian and American cuisine is representative of what third culture stands for: a bridge between cultures, communicated through the language of delicious food.
Since their invention in 2014 at Third Culture, mochi muffins have skyrocketed in popularity. They were first conceptualized by Butarbutar while he worked at his previous job at Sam’s Patisserie, when a demand for gluten free goods was at an all time high.
For Cherry Lalina, a senior in Academic Choice (AC) at Berkeley High School (BHS), gluten free goods are particularly important. “As someone who’s gluten intolerant, it’s definitely wonderful to have good tasting gluten free food,” Lalina said. “To have actual options that taste just as good — if not better — is a big change.”
Nothing can quite match the unique texture of the mochi muffin, which boasts a crispy edge, a chewy center, and a fulfilling density. Chef Butarbutar has managed to create a diverse collection of flavors and accompanying glazes, such as ube, matcha, black sesame, chocolate brownie, and even a three cheese savory muffin.
The mochi muffin isn’t the only avant-garde treat birthed by Chef Butarbutar. Another popular item at Third Culture is the butter mochi donut. Various glazes add a level of complexity to the taste, advancing the donuts to a level of tangy sweetness. For a nuttier and deeper flavor, an ideal selection would be the vietnamese coffee butter donut. For a sharper and more intense flavor, Third Culture offers a mango passionfruit butter donut.
Third Culture also offers an array of matcha-based iced teas and lattes. Shyu mentioned his personal favorite saying, “I love our caramel matcha latte, on the rocks.”
Matcha is traditionally brewed with near boiling water, a sifter, and a bamboo whisk. This East Asian tea has been around for over 800 years and is brought to life by Third Culture, whose lattes are light and sweet with a bitter undertone.
Third Culture Bakery was first established in 2016, primarily as a wholesale bakery selling products to small cafes and restaurants. According to Shyu, it was hard work, but once the mochi muffin started to take off, the bakery saved up enough to open a storefront. Beyond the showroom in Berkeley, Third Culture has also opened a shop in Aurora, Colorado, along with over 60 wholesale locations. Highly anticipated cafes in Denver and Los Angeles are coming soon as well.
The Bay Area loves the food and environment that Third Culture has created. According to Mia Fassi, a freshman at Oakland Technical High School, “The place itself is super inviting and comfortable, and they’re really Covid safe.” Berkeley resident Ondine Boulter highlighted the excellent customer service, saying “They were very nice, friendly, happy, and positive.”
Third Culture prides itself on its team philosophy. Shyu said, “We have three pillars we stand by: we lead with heart, kindness, and integrity. I would say that our entire team exemplifies this philosophy beautifully, so it’s a kind, honest, open, no BS kinda culture.”
The pandemic has been a challenge for Shyu and Butarbutar. “We had a huge drop in business the first two months of the shutdowns while trying to keep as many folks as we could, and the uncertainty was draining and exhausting,” admitted Shyu. However, Third Culture was able to quickly regain what was lost in March and April. “Luckily, we were able to bounce right back with the tremendous support of customers and our community,” said Shyu.
Third Culture survived a chaotic year, and 2021 brings a fresh start for Shyu and Butarbutar. They have continued to create a welcoming and innovative bakery that puts the interest of their customers first. Third Culture can be found on 2701 Eighth Street in Berkeley, and the shop is open for walk-in customers, takeout, and delivery.