Wednesday evening my wife and I walked up Shattuck Street in North Berkeley, CA, with a mean appetite after working out. The scene up the block looked like gypsies set up their campground with caravans parked along the curbs. But as we walked up closer to Rose Street, passing by The Cheese Board Collective (a co-op cheese store/bakery/pizzeria that only serves one style of pizza each day) and Saul’s Delicatessen (a local Jewish deli), we saw crowds of people drinking Mexican Coca-Cola out of glass bottles, reusable bags in tow and eating food that looked so delicious you wouldn’t expect it served in a to-go container. This is Off the Grid, a weekly food market of street truck vendors offering gourmet cuisine in Berkeley once a week.
As we walked the perimeter of food trucks that took up both sides of the street, passing by the trio of recycle/trash/compost bins, we were surprised to find such street offerings not typically found in brick and mortar restaurants: fried chicken served with a side of donuts, hamburgers with a cooked egg on top of the patty, truffle oil tater tots and French fries topped with pulled pork.
Now you may be asking yourself what does this have to do with martial arts? Well I’ll get into that later. But first let me introduce you to Casey McEachern, a thirty year old man that has a boyish Midwestern face, short brown bed-head hair and a stocky build. When he smiles, you can tell it’s genuine.
On a Sunday afternoon beads of sweat dripped off Casey’s face from finishing up his neck workout, which consisted of wearing a head harness that had a weight attached to it. Then several reps followed of nodding his head up and down. Before that he and I rolled (a term meaning to grapple, not to be confused with the same term in some social circles meaning high on the drug ecstasy) on the mat with a few other friends. Three minute rounds with a thirty second rest between each round for an hour straight, a regular Sunday afternoon affair at the open mat in the Krav Maga gym where some of us train.
As Casey reached inside the beverage cooler, pulling out a fifty ounce blender jar filled with a thick, pink liquid mixture, I asked, “Why choose grappling [as a sport to train in]? Why not aerobics or swimming?”
Casey wiped off the Pepto Bismol colored protein shake from his lips and responded, “It’s so technical. I love the technical aspect of it. I love a sport that engages your mind. And that every time you come in, you’re trying to figure out a puzzle of someone else. My good friend said jiu-jitsu is like human chess. And I love that analogy because before I come in, I’m thinking I’m gonna try this [move or technique]. When most people think of grappling they think of it as a combat sport or something. But I think of it as sort of meditative. I love the contemplative aspect of it.”
Grappling is a physical contact sport derived from several disciplines including jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and judo. Competitors fight in the clinch or ground seeking to defeat their opponents by takedowns, sweeps and submission holds, either through the use of chokes or hyper extending specific limbs. There is no striking in grappling, but there are techniques on how to defend yourself if you are attacked with strikes or weapons.
Casey grew up in small town in Wyoming that was sports-obsessed. He played everything from basketball, football, baseball, tennis and boxing. When he and his family moved to Southern California, Casey was burnt out and didn’t participate in high school sports, focusing more on his studies. A few years later while attending college he ran into Robert Emerson, an old high school friend.
A professional Mixed Martial Artist and Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran, Emerson was a cast member on season five of The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show, alongside coaches B.J. Penn and Jens Pulver.
“I asked [Robert] what he was up to. He rattled off all of this stuff he was doing: jiu-jitsu, this, that. He knew I used to box a little bit. So after speaking to him I decided to take a jiu-jitsu class at a studio that had just opened up called Gracie Barra, which ended up being the biggest, best studio in the United States. I trained with Kyra Gracie, [Marcio] Feitosa, and Carlos Gracie Jr.”
Casey’s first class consisted of him putting on the traditional jiu-jitsu gi or kimono and getting submitted several times in less than five minutes by a forty-five year old Chinese woman that he outweighed by sixty pounds. He knew he could improve and continued to train at Gracie Barra four to five times a week for a year. When it was time for graduate school he moved to Northern California and attended UC Berkeley. He continued training at Eduardo Rocha’s gym in Oakland. Then he was injured.
“I was doing a dead lift (a straight bar pull from the ground as you bend over and lift up weights) and I herniated a disc in my lower back. I went too heavy. I couldn’t get off my hands and knees for six months and crawled around the house like a dog. I narrowly avoided spine surgery. I mean I went into the hospital the day before and got my hospital band. The surgeon was prepped. But the night before I just had a bad feeling. I didn’t do it and dedicated myself to rehab. I just gave up on grappling and decided I’d never grapple again.”
“But it wasn’t grappling that injured you, so why did you want to quit?” I asked.
“With the gi there’s so much pulling on the collar that you’re lifting with your lower back and you have to resist all of the time. And it aggravated [the injury] so much more.”
“So you continued training while injured?”
“Yeah, I kept training until I couldn’t move my left foot.”
Relating to the addictiveness training had over an athlete, I understood that even through injuries, you kept at it. Life didn’t feel right when you were off the mat. I sucked it up, always wanting to try a new technique, a new hold to catch my opponent with that I learned the night before. That was what mattered. It infected my thoughts morning, noon and night. Hyper extended elbows, pulled ligaments in my legs, cauliflower ear, staph infections, it didn’t matter. Before my last tournament my knee popped during training, but I competed anyways because it wasn’t about winning or losing. It was about getting better.
Casey continued, “I woke one day and my left foot was limp, and I was like maybe I should stop training (laughs). So I did for two years and focused on strengthening my core. I started out doing basic movements all the way to gymnastics. That’s why I started gymnastics. I couldn’t find core workouts that were challenging anymore. Then my friend Stephan was like ‘Why don’t you try no-gi? It’s more fluid.’ So I did.”
Stephan Goyne is the owner of Bay Jiu-jitsu and holds a black belt under Eduardo Rocha, a world class competitor and fourth degree black belt under Rolyer Gracie.
“He’s my best friend. I’ve know him since training at Eduardo’s. He comes from a gymnastics background too and he was a school teacher. So if you combine the gymnastics and the school teacher he’s got an amazing approach to jiu-jitsu. And it’s very learnable. Working through him cultivated that competitive spirit and that focused attention that made me fall in love with the rhythm.”
Casey again referred to grappling like playing human chess and related it to something he once saw in Russia called Chessboxing, a sport envisioned by French cartoonist Enki Bilal in his graphic novel Froid Ėquateur. It combined boxing and speed chess in a single bout. The first round consisted of a four minute chess round followed by a three minute boxing round alternating each for eleven rounds. A competitor won by KO, TKO, checkmate or decision.
“Jiu-jitsu is the perfect marriage of those. We don’t have to segregate. We can have the chess match on the mat as well.”
The last tournament Casey competed in was August 2011 at the American Nationals. While flying down he was reading an article on a phenom grappler by the name of Ian Beauregard in Gracie Magazine. When he got to the auditorium where the tournament was being held he learned he drew Ian as an opponent. Casey’s match against Beauregard lasted two and half minutes before he was submitted with a D’Arce choke. Beauregard went on to win the tournament. Casey didn’t walk away from the tournament feeling defeated. He walked away learning from that experience. It was a good gauge to see how his technique stood up against his peers and what he needed to work on to sharpen his skills when it came time to compete again.
“To this day [Ian] is the best guy I’ve ever rolled with, including black belts. He’s a blue belt.”
Jiu-jitsu isn’t an all-or-nothing sport, meaning if you lose you should hang up the towel and quit. You improve your game by improving your technique. It’s not about size and strength, but substance, the way Neo in the movie The Matrix had “The Operator” download several martial art disciplines into his brain so he had all the techniques he needed to defeat the Agents.
But now let’s get back to those food trucks in North Berkeley. What do street food and Casey have in common? Well besides training and competing in grappling tournaments, he and his wife make their living selling cupcakes out of a food truck they named Cupkates.
“Kate is my wife. She’s the only girl I’ve ever dated. I met her when I was nineteen. We got married when I was twenty-four. We were sitting around our apartment one day and she said she wanted to open up a bakery.”
That same day, as Casey tells it, they both read an article in the Wall Street Journal that said one of the worst businesses you can open is a bakery due to profits being eaten up by the storefront. Casey came up with the idea of selling baked goods in a truck instead of a traditional brick and mortar store. But Kate swung with a haymaker saying she thought that was dumbest idea she had ever heard. The next morning as Casey drove his wife to her corporate job, she received a text from her friend in New York who was an editor of the New York Times: House & Garden section. “Someone,” as Casey put it “she revered more than her dumb husband.” The editor sent Kate a picture of a Jamaican food truck he had walked past and thought would be great for cupcakes. Without any hesitation she turned to Casey and said that was the best idea she had ever heard.
Casey and his wife decided to purchase an old PG&E truck that was used to hold supplies for natural gas and electricity. Then, “We took the truck to Los Angeles to the main West Coast Customs (a car remodeling company in Orange County) that does hundreds of food trucks a year, but all taco trucks. We brought it to them and said ‘Can you build a cupcake truck?’ They said, ‘What’s a cupcake truck?’ So we had to draw them what we wanted the inside to look like. It was totally different than typical trucks. We didn’t need an oven, we didn’t need a three compartment sink. We just needed a couple of bun racks bolted down and a pop up window.”
All the baking happens inside a cooperative kitchen where small culinary business owners like Casey and Kate can rent space to cook.
“While we’re baking cupcakes, there’s a lady there who’s cooking falafels for a falafel truck. There’s a guy cooking breakfast stuff for a breakfast truck. We bake there in the morning and load the truck, then Twitter and Facebook our locations.”
Cupkates has been so successful it was named “The Best Food Truck” by SF Weekly and East Bay Express, two local weekly newspapers. Cupkates travels throughout the East Bay and San Francisco, selling their baked goods at weekly food markets and on designated streets. They operate five days a week and typically have fourteen to fifteen stops on a single day. A typical menu includes salted caramel, tiramisu (one of my personal favorites), red velvet, S’Mores, double chocolate, and double vanilla – all ingredients locally sourced and fresh.