Football, food, family: N.C. State lineman Chandler Zavala learns lessons from 'Chopped' champion dad

David Thompson

RALEIGH — The nightly call between Chandler Zavala and his father begins with the same question. 

"What did you eat today?"

It's not a critical probe towards Zavala's weight, who, since arriving at N.C. State this summer as a graduate transfer and 6-foot-5 offensive lineman from Fairmont State, weighs in at 325 pounds.

There is, however, a higher expectation when it comes to Zavala's food choices.

That's what happens when you have a celebrity chef in the family.

His father, Demetrio Zavala, has sparred in the kitchen on national television with Bobby Flay, won the title of Food Network's "Chopped" champion by out-cooking the show's judges, and risen to the title of corporate executive chef for one of the largest restaurant groups in the country.

"Food has always been a big part of our lives," Demetrio said. "There's nothing my kids won't eat, and that's because I've introduced them to a lot of different cuisines and flavors of food. They know what tastes good, and they know how to prepare it."

While professional success in football is Chandler's ultimate dream, it's his relationship with food and the example his father set in the kitchen that edified his goals and led to a Division I opportunity.

"I've watched the way he's worked throughout his career and it's had a huge impact on me," Chandler said. "I've seen what it takes to turn your dreams into reality."

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Growing up in the kitchen

Shots of Chandler Zavala and his father, Demetrio

Chandler's campus apartment kitchen at N.C. State does not resemble that of the average college student. 

The fridge is stocked with fresh produce and fruit, salmon, whole chickens, New York strips, turkey sausage and several cartons of eggs.

The secret to his eight egg omelet? Confidence. 

"It's all about the flip," he said. "You've got to push the pan forward, give it a little oomph and pull it back. It'll flip, trust me. It's all about confidence."

He does his own shopping, although his father will, on occasion, send him something special.

"He'll send me big pieces of meat," Chandler said, laughing. "I got like a 30-pound prime rib from him once. Or he'll send me some chickens and I'll have to de-bone them."

Chandler's knives are sharpened and a large wooden cutting board rests on the counter. The dishes stay clean and out of the sink — one of the many lessons he learned while growing up in restaurants. 

Chandler and his younger sister, Chase, split time with their mother and father, who divorced when he was 5. 

They wouldn't see much of their father during the week, who would wake up at 5 a.m. to practice his baking skills before taking a double shift to handle the lunch and dinner rush. 

But the weekends were spent alongside Demetrio in a restaurant kitchen. 

Before Saturday's dinner rush and brunch the next day, Chandler and his sister did prep work, chopping vegetables, trimming meat, setting up work stations and assisting in the mandatory cleaning.

"We were pressed together in the kitchen. We'd prep together, cook together, and then I'd make them something to eat," Demetrio said. "I really enjoyed having them but I also wanted them to understand that hard work and dedication are important."

Those early lessons in the kitchen pushed Chandler when he decided to pursue football.

Basketball speed with a football body

He grew up playing multiple sports, but his large frame and natural athletic ability caught the eye of Forest Park High School's head football coach.

"He was actually a basketball player at the time and I saw him in the gym, he was probably 6-foot-4, 260 pounds at the time and he could really move," Forest Park's former head football coach Daniel Bruden said. "His first spring with us, he actually lined up as a tight end during 7-on-7 drills. He was out there catching touchdown passes."

Bruden said Chandler would've played Division I football right out of high school if it were not for an ankle injury his junior season and a broken hand the subsequent year.

"In the 27 games we had over those two seasons, he probably played half of them," Bruden said. "He just couldn't stay healthy."

Chandler was offered a few preferred walk-on spots at Division I programs, but it was Fairmont State — a Division II program in Fairmont, West Virginia — that offered him a full ride. He went on to become the program's first All-American offensive lineman since 1994.

After the Falcons canceled their 2020 season amid the pandemic, Chandler entered the transfer portal and announced his move to N.C. State on Dec. 1, 2020. 

"I was ready for the next challenge," Chandler said. "I was ready for another level of competition."

Like father, like son. 

Cooking his way to the top

Chandler Zavala, left, and his father Demetrio Zavala

 It was food that lifted Demetrio from poverty.

He was born in Colorado's Fort Carson Army base and raised by a single mother. His father left for good shortly after he was born. She struggled to put food on the table and keep the lights on in their home. 

"When you don't have anything to fall back on, your drive is a little different," Demetrio said. "I knew that, when I had kids, I had to do whatever it takes to make sure that I can provide for them. I didn't want them to struggle the way that I struggled."

Like any profession, he started from the bottom. He worked as a prep cook in a small Italian restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida, at 15. Demetrio began to expand his talents, working at three French restaurants before spending a decade as a chef at an upscale American bistro. 

He opened a high-end pizza restaurant, Coal Mine Pizza, that he sold to help start his restaurant consulting business. After a move to Washington, D.C., in 2009, where he was hired as a corporate executive chef and a restaurant concept developer, his career took off.

"When I talk about my dad, I get emotional sometimes," Chandler said. "I think about all his hard work and what he's accomplished. He's an inspiration. He wanted to give us the life he never had. He succeeded."

In 2015, Demetrio was invited to participate in the Food Network's "Guy's Grocery Games," his first appearance on national television. 

"I did not win," Demetrio said, laughing. "But it was a fun experience."

He got redemption in 2016, competing and winning in his first appearance on "Chopped" — a three-round competition where chefs have a limited time to create an appetizer, entrée and dessert based around challenging ingredients — during a special episode that advanced him to face chef Bobby Flay in a finale episode. 

"They wouldn't let him tell us what happened until the episodes aired, so it was like crazy to watch them with him," Chandler said. "I had to wait like everybody else."

Demetrio lost in the finale, getting chopped in the entrée round. 

In 2020, he returned to the "Chopped" kitchen — during episodes where contestants competed against the show's celebrity chef judges — and lost in the dessert round to Tiffani Faison. 

He was invited back again in January 2021 and advanced to the "Grudge Match: $100,000 finale." He faced judge Marc Murphy in the championship round.

"The beast is coming," Demetrio told Murphy before the start of the round. 

Demetrio served a roasted pork dish with squash and avocado milk mashed plantains with the ingredients of loaded nachos, butternut squash, avocado milk and an entire suckling pig. 

It won him the title of "Chopped" Grand Champion and made him the first five-time winner on the show.

"When I'm cooking, I'm super-focused, super-disciplined," Demetrio said. "I believe if you take something seriously, you have to give it your all. I'm an aggressor like I want to break every bone in your body."

'I'm a protective type'

Demetrio's aggressive nature was the same attitude he brought to the football field as a high school player. He played defensive tackle — before a shoulder injury ended his playing career — pushing and shoving his way toward the quarterback in pursuit of the big hit.

Chandler, 22, has the opposite mentality. He's a self-proclaimed protector, fitting for an offensive lineman. 

"He doesn't go out looking for a fight. He's not trying to attack somebody," Demetrio said. "He's very calm, very caring and loving about people. It's why, if I'm being honest, I never thought he'd play football at this level."

Chandler's protective nature developed during childhood. After his parents divorced and continued to pursue their separate careers, it left him in charge of his younger sister.

"I had to grow up really quick," he said. "I felt like it was up to me to fend for her and make sure she was OK. Even when my mom would bring another man around the house, I'd never trust him. I felt like I was the man of the house and it was my job to protect them."

Family was a major factor in Chandler's decision to transfer to N.C. State. His mother recently moved to Raleigh to work at the university's veterinary department and his sister, who spent the last two years in the U.S. Army serving overseas in South Korea, is now stationed in Fort Bragg — about an hour south of Raleigh. Demetrio is always traveling for work but has already carved out time to attend home games this season at Carter-Finley Stadium. 

"I protect my family," Chandler said. "That now includes this team. They are my brothers and family. I'll do anything to protect them."

That's good news for N.C. State starting quarterback Devin Leary.

It's also good news for the entire offensive line, which not only adds an experienced left guard to the depth chart but an amateur chef with plans to feed the notoriously hungry group. 

"It's a lot of food," Chandler said, laughing. "Those guys really like to eat. I'm hoping I can get them all together before the season starts. I'd like to cook for my guys."

The food is a symbolic gesture — like his father mailing a 30-pound piece of prime rib — a way to show he cares and a chance to share himself with his new family.

"When we get together as families every year for Christmas, Thanksgiving and all of that, what do we surround ourselves with? Food," Demetrio said. "Food is what brings us together and brings people joy. I'm so happy my son understands its power."

David Thompson is an award-winning reporter for the USA Today Network covering NC State and Duke athletics. He can be reached at, at 828-231-1747, or on Twitter at @daveth89.