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Heart of Old Hickory

story by James Buck

The heart of every restaurant is its kitchen. The muscle that powers Old Hickory Bar-B-Q is more than a room with stoves. The building itself is a furnace – two giant barbecue pits form the walls of the cinder block edifice. A long, heavy-duty grill sprouts from each side, slowly smoking hundreds of pounds of meat.

True to its name, Old Hickory uses real wood fires to heat its grills. Pitmaster Gary Sandefur kindles the hickory blazes every morning and fills the pit room with rich, savory smoke.

Western Kentucky barbecue is distinguished by its main meat: mutton. Chopped-mutton sandwiches are popular, as are sliced mutton, mutton ribs and mutton loin.

The pit room was built in 2011. Gary started at Old Hickory when it opened and he has run it since.

“That pit room is the lifeline to the barbecue restaurant,” Gary says.

It takes up to 22 hours to barbecue the meat, so he needs to be prepared. If supplies run low during the dinner rush, he can’t just whip up another batch. So he is meticulous.

“It’s a lot to pay attention to, but . . . I can open up the pit and know exactly what’s going on, where the meat is coming along,” he says.

Old Hickory is both a local hangout and a nationally known establishment. In January, owner John Foreman won the Kentucky title on the cable television show “BBQ Pitmasters.”

Despite the restaurant’s fame, the dining room remains down to earth. Local firefighters are frequent customers, as are many of Owensboro’s senior citizens. When customers come in, they hug friends spotted across the room, or catch up with the wait staff on the local news.

The smell of hickory smoke and the savory tang of mutton linger after customers leave, as does the friendly sense of being at home.

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Farley McBride of Laird Meat Co. in Benton delivers a shipment of 30 sheep to Old Hickory Bar-B-Q. Mutton barbecue is a western Kentucky specialty.

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Pitmaster Gary Sandefur stacks wood for the fires in the pit room at Old Hickory Bar-B-Q. Old Hickory uses only hickory wood and smokes its barbecue for up to 22 hours in the pit room, a custom building containing two long pits – metal enclosures with grills that are heated by the fires.

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Pitmaster Gary Sandefur reignites the wood fires in Old Hickory Bar-B-Q's pit room. Old Hickory, one of Owensboro's barbecue staples, smokes its meat for up to 22 hours before serving it to customers.

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Kevin Entrekin (left) is briefed by Old Hickory Bar-B-Q pitmaster Gary Sandefur before Kevin takes over as the night-shift cook.

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Pitmaster Gary Sandefur checks a cut of meat coming off the grill in the pit room at Old Hickory Bar-B-Q.

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A server scoops a portion of chopped mutton for a take-out customer at Old Hickory Bar-B-Q.

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Diners eat lunch at Old Hickory Bar-B-Q. The restaurant expanded in 2011 and regularly fills the dining room and overflow areas during meal times.

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Diners eat lunch at Old Hickory Bar-B-Q. The restaurant expanded in 2011 and regularly fills the dining room and overflow areas during meal times.

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Patrons greet each other with a hug during lunch at Old Hickory Bar-B-Q. The restaurant is a local icon and gathering place.