The multihued bruise on chef Cathal Armstrong’s left arm isn’t the result of some freak kitchen accident. Not content to knock out customers with the food at Restaurant Eve and the rest of his Alexandria dining empire, Armstrong has spent the past year training in taekwondo. That’s how the 41-year-old ended up recently sparring with an opponent who tried to take him down with a powerful pinch.
“Unfortunately for him, he stepped back and opened his legs,” says Armstrong, who hopes to have a similar showing today when he competes at the taekwondo national championship in Dallas.
Armstrong will face opponents in his age bracket (41-50), but that won’t make the competition any less physical — or change the goal, which is to land kicks all over the other guy’s body and head. “I know it’s kind of nuts,” he says. “But if you can do it, why not?”
And not long ago, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. When the former high school athlete — he was captain of his school’s hurling team in Ireland — turned 40, he weighed in at 214 pounds. Years of late nights at his restaurants had caught up with him, and he’d started to look quite natural as a spokesman for Kerrygold butter.
So he turned to his son’s taekwondo coach at Yoo’s Authentic Martial Arts in Alexandria for personal training. At first, the sessions were strictly cardio and conditioning. But Armstrong couldn’t help but ask Jason Yoo — a former national champion — if he’d also help him live out his childhood ambitions of fighting like Bruce Lee.
Armstrong got the go-ahead, on the condition that he spend a lot more time in the gym. Soon he was rejiggering his restaurant schedule to exercise six days a week. “I’d given up on using the words ‘athlete’ and ‘me’ in the same sentence again,” says Armstrong, who’s now a trim 175 pounds and a certified blue belt who’s undefeated so far in competition.
Just watching Armstrong train with Yoo is exhausting. He runs, jumps, squats and lunges, but mostly he kicks — into paddles, shields and heavy bags. Even after sweat completely soaks his shirt, Armstrong keeps up with Yoo’s commands to “Shoot that ax!” (That’s a kind of kick that resembles chopping an opponent’s head off.)
In preparation for nationals, Armstrong completely cut out alcohol and changed his diet. “I try to eat dinner at 4:30 and not really eat after that other than raw vegetables,” says Armstrong, who’s stopped lingering over wine at the restaurant and instead goes to bed earlier so he can get to the gym on time.
This commitment has led to progress well beyond the weight loss. “We went from kicking just here,” says Yoo, pointing toward hip height, “to being able to kick someone in the head.” That improved movement has practical life applications as well, notes Armstrong, who’s thrilled to be able to crouch to the ground and run around the kitchen again.
The sparring is exciting, but what’s kept Armstrong motivated is the person he’s become. “I’m happier. I’m focused. My concentration has improved,” he says.
And that’s definitely worth a few bruises.
Along with those extra muscles, Armstrong’s gotten quite a few injuries. He’s chipped a bone and developed a stress fracture along his toes, and he finished one tournament with a black eye. His lower legs have taken the biggest beating — those shin guards don’t do much. His method of relief? A rub-on salve called Amish Origins.