I T’S AROUND NOON, and Chef Terry Koval and I are seated at the bar inside his Decatur restaurant, The Deer and the Dove. Koval is wearing a black TGK (The Giving Kitchen) tee, dark jeans and a baseball cap with his restaurant’s moniker. The moody dining room is empty (they open at 4 p.m.) aside from us and his daughter, Olivia, 20, who is hanging out at a nearby table; the two just got back from having breakfast. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ familiar lyrics play from within the kitchen where his staff is hard at work. B-Side, his adjoining wood-fired bagel, coffee and sandwich shop, is abuzz with customers.
The owner of The Deer and the Dove and B-Side is admittedly emotional about winning the 2023 James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Southeast. “It feels like a lifetime achievement. Anyone who is in this business – we all work really hard. We sacrifice a lot out of our lives. My big thing is how I’ve grown as a chef, building relationships with local farmers, purveyors, ranchers and supporting local agriculture,” says Koval, who is also the recipient of the Slow Food Snail of Approval award for his commitment to the environment and local communities. He is quick to add that he couldn’t have done it alone. “It takes a village. It’s every farmer I’ve ever worked with, anybody who has ever worked for me. It’s bigger than me! We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our community.”
Born in Ohio, Koval set out on his own at age 15. “I left home if that explains anything. My brother was gone, in and out of prison. It was time for me to exit my situation,” he shares. Always a big dreamer, he pursued professional skateboarding. “I failed miserably.” He laughs. “But made a lot of good friends and partied too hard. I did that, then cooking fell in there; I don’t know how. It’s a snowball effect.” In his early years, he moved around a lot, honing his culinary skills in myriad restaurants in Colorado, Michigan, Florida and South Carolina.
This transient lifestyle ended when he met Jenn, his wife, at age 21. The two relocated to Decatur when Koval was 24, and this is when his mission became clear: to go from line cook to sous chef to chef. Koval put in the work at the restaurants he worked in, learned to cook from scratch and helped open restaurants from the ground up. He absorbed everything he could. “Coming in every morning, staying late, working many, many hours for free. Lost her whole entire childhood.” He motions to Olivia. Finally, he landed at Wrecking Bar, where he was given free rein: developing dishes, as well as curing, aging and breaking down whole animals.
“Next step is the American dream: open your own business. Never really had any money, just a dreamer. My landlords, the Pichuliks, reached out one day — they used to go to Wrecking Bar. ‘Here’s this space.’ ‘I don’t have any money.’ ‘Let’s figure it out.’ So, we figured it out,” he laughs. “SBA loan. There you are. Now you’re a restaurant owner!”
Koval and Jenn opened The Deer and the Dove and B-Side in 2019, right before the pandemic. Jenn works the front of the house while he cooks in the back. “There are no other partners; it’s just us. Coming out of the pandemic, everyone was making fried chicken to go, BBQ. There was a pinnacle where we were like, ‘We need to go back to what we can do.’” They pivoted quickly, adding sweet breads, bone marrow and “those weird meats that we do” back to the menu. Their ever-changing menu, printed by Jenn daily, features “interesting food that excites” Chef Koval and his team of chefs, servers and bartenders. “The majority of our staff that works here have worked here since day one. We have a good culture here.” Their staples include venison (“on the menu since Fall 2023 DECATUR LIVING 27 day one”), pheasant and duck. What he’s most excited about is the beef tongue, a dish he’s been cooking throughout his career. In the fall, they do a lot of braised and slow-cooked dishes and a humongous lamb shank
The restaurant’s focus is on open wood-fire cooking, something Koval has been doing at farm events for the last 10 years. “I’ve always kind of liked wild game, I grew up that way. My folks had a huge garden when I was younger.” His father’s taxidermy is peppered throughout the restaurant. You’d think that this is the reason for the restaurant’s name, but you’d be wrong. Jenn named the restaurant after their spirit animals. “She’s the dove, and I’m the deer,” Koval explains. A deer head with a dove perched on it hangs above a u-shaped booth near the kitchen; Koval’s James Beard medal dangles from an antler. The walls are adorned with iconic skateboarder art, a nod to Koval’s other passion.
So, how has life changed after this major win? “The day after, we got off the plane [returning from the James Beard Award ceremony in Chicago],
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN THE NEXT 5 YEARS?
“Chillin’ on a beach,” Koval laughs. He foresees opening another bagel shop and another restaurant concept when the timing is right. “I have this vision of another restaurant that I’d like to do that’s really fun and not fancy — high energy, good, local seafood. Right now, we’re not going to change anything; we’re going to keep on doing what we set to do: family neighborhood restaurant, period. I might add caviar to the menu, but that’s it. I have a couple of regulars who are like, ‘You gotta add caviar.’ We’ve done caviar, but they want the service.”
and we were booked a month and a half out instantly . . . We’re doing numbers we never dreamed of, which is incredible!” He’s adjusting to his newfound celebrity status. “It’s a little awkward to go to Home Depot and have a couple of people walk up to you and be like, ‘Hey, congratulations!’ My son [Jackson, 10] is like, ‘Do you know them?’” He laughs. A huge upside is that business has been so good, Koval was able to pay off his SBA loan this year.
Being the recipient of a James Beard award has brought about more opportunities and fun events, including dinners and charities for underprivileged children. The chef is incredibly passionate about giving back to his community and has been doing this for years through myriad events. He is all about spreading good energy, especially at work. “We’re at work, but this is something that we enjoy and love to do. We play music during the shift. Everybody, be pumped and excited!” he says.
“Next year, I get to do Okefenokee with Andrew Zimmern and The Giving Kitchen. My brain is like,” — Koval makes an exploding sound — “what kind of weird stuff is he going to cook and what weird stuff am I going to cook? I can’t believe it!”
Koval is living the American dream and loving every second of it. “It’s everything I dreamed it would be, honestly,” he says. “I live seven minutes from here. We’ve lived here for 18 years in Decatur. It is the epitome of a neighborhood haunt. We want folks to come in here in flip-flops and shorts, sit at the bar and eat bone marrow and foie gras.”