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Photographs by Steve Adams, Kevin Roberts, and Carmen Troesser, Illustrations by Rachel Harris
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Years ago, St. Louis distinguished itself, culinarily speaking, with a scattering of Italian restaurants, and Tony’s was at the top of the proverbial hill. And although we had some notable barbecue joints—and even our namesake cut of spareribs—that genre was never, ever part of the landscape. Such conversations began with “Kansas City” and ended with “Memphis,” with no stops in between. Then, pit masters like Mike Mills and Terry Black began racking up ribbons and national Grand Champion awards at Memphis in May, and barbecue nation began smelling our smoke. Today, cravings for a Pappy’s dry-rubbed rib have supplanted yearnings for anybody’s veal Milanese, prompting our announcement that it’s now barbecue season in St. Louis, folks, all year long. We therefore present our favorite barbecue joints—the new, the old, the famous, the infamous—and tips for enjoying what for many typifies summer in St. Louis…the humidity has already received plenty of press. —George Mahe
Best in BBQ Show
The pit master at Bogart’s, Skip Steele, who has worked smoke pits from Memphis to New York to Las Vegas, is making the case for “pit master” to be on par with “chef.” Or maybe even “mad genius,” to judge by the ’cue-linary wizardry he’s conjured since last February on an otherwise unassuming Soulard street corner. He smokes prime rib—repeat, he smokes prime rib—rendering a flavor and mouthfeel that are somehow rich and delicate all at once. As for your more quotidian rib slabs, why, those are finished off with an apricot-imbued glaze hit with a roofer’s torch. The baked beans are homemade and pit-smoked as well, and the chicken wings are a singular indulgence that the master himself doles out to customers waiting in the (fast-moving) ’cue-queue; they’re not on the menu (yet), so Steele passes them out gratis, one more reason why he’s made so many friends, and why his joint is tops in town. 1627 S. Ninth, 314-621-3107, bogartssmokehouse.com.
St. Louis: Known for the Arch, the Cardinals, Then Maybe...
New York once had the Soup Nazi, Chicago still has The Wieners Circle, and we’ve got Pappy’s Smokehouse—that hallowed eatery, exalted by locals and foreigners with equal fanfare, where standing in line has become an integral part of the experience. We’d maybe even say that all of that waiting makes the customer’s eventual spoils taste a little bit better—but could these ribs really taste any better than they already do? 3106 Olive, 314-535-4340, pappyssmokehouse.com
The Shaved Duck
Best Second Effort
When the former duck-heavy eatery turned to barbecue and chili in early 2009, we weren’t sure what to think. On the basis of a midweek visit, though, it’s clear that we’re not the only ones smiling as the city has embraced this reborn restaurant, thanks to standards like pulled pork and ribs, as well as nonstandards like smoked meatloaf and a devilishly addicting concoction called brisket dip (think buffalo chicken dip with brisket and barbecue sauce in place of chicken and hot sauce). 2900 Virginia, 314-776-1407, theshavedduck.com.
Mom Mae's BBQ & Fish
Sweet, Sweet Family
The history of barbecue in America would be hard to write without families like the Dicksons, who own and run Mom Mae’s in Florissant. As you tuck into a plate of massive pork ribs—served with a sweet barbecue sauce over slices of white bread—do so in view of the family tree on the restaurant’s wall and share in their story, a tale punctuated by special spice rubs tempered by the slow smoking of wood. 3807 Vaile, 314-837-4111.
Where to Get BBQ Now
With all due respect to Mom’s short ribs, the burnt ends at this West County gem make for one of the best Sunday suppers we’ve ever experienced. Carved from the point of BBQ ASAP’s championship brisket, sections of smoky beef are slowly braised in fat drippings and jus until the already-tender meat shreds into decadent ribbons of what can only be called “barbecue nirvana.” Get some religion, ASAP. 15581 Manchester, 636-256-1908, bbqasap.com.
BBQ so Hypnotic You'll See Purple Dinosaurs
What makes Barney’s great is what Barney’s is not. It is not open year-round, only during the summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so a visit feels like as much of a dog-day tradition as fireworks or Fair St. Louis. Barney’s does not serve your typical fall-off-the-bone, slathered-in-sauce ribs. Instead, they’re toothsomely tough, cooked over homemade charcoal and sided with a Carolina-cider-style jus. But that doesn’t really matter, because you’re not going to Barney’s for ribs. You’re there for the birds, chicken and turkey, smoked better here than just about anywhere else in the state, and that pumpkin cake, the best out-of-season dessert you’ll find this season. 16011 Manchester, 636-227-2300, barneysbbq.com.
As you enter the 10-seat takeout storefront, a thick plume of hickory smoke clairvoyantly signals you to abandon any other options and simply succumb to a tasty slab of the namesake dish at Roper’s. But as good as the ribs are, it’s the infectious smile of owner Denise Roper that wins you over from her perch in the window as her husband, Carl, tends a smoker that’s garnered a list of awards as long as a slab of spares. 6929 W. Florissant, 314-381-6200, ropersribs.com.
PM BBQ is known Valley-wide for its half-chicken dinners, excellent side dishes, and the magical way that a stripe of mustard-based barbecue sauce cranks up the volume on a slab of bark-encrusted ribs. But owners Paul Lamers and Mark Ruck (P and M) have also channeled the smoke spirits of Central Texas to turn some of the finest beef brisket in town, where perfectly rendered fat keeps each thick-cut slice moist. Sauce isn’t needed here; if you must, though, reach for a squeeze of PM’s spicy red barbecue sauce. 103 Chesterfield Towne Center, 636-536-1966, pmbbq.com.
Super Smokers BBQ
From the 'Cue Come Legends
The trophies and memorabilia lining the walls of the Super Smokers rib shack attest to Terry Black’s kitchen prowess. The pit master has won some of the most prestigious barbecue cook-offs in the U.S., and what’s more, he’s the godfather of our burg’s burgeoning barbecue scene (Mike Emerson of Pappy’s Smokehouse is a former employee; Bogart’s pit master Skip Steele, a former partner). Super Smokers’ mainstay is the slow-smoked ribs, legendary bones that don’t need any sauce—but you might try a taste of the seven varieties Black makes available at each table, just to see how complex something so simple can become. 601 Stockell, Eureka, 636-938-9742; 7409 Highway N, Dardenne Prairie, 636-614-1183; supersmokers.com.
17th Street BBQ
The Home of Regal Ribs
They call Mike Mills “The Legend” and “The King of Swine” because he’s won three Grand Champion awards at the Memphis in May’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest; he’s a partner in Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke in NYC (it’s Mills’ sauce on the tables); Bon Appétit dubbed his ribs the best in the U.S. Now will you make the drive to see what the all the hubbub‘s about? 1711 W. Highway 50, O’Fallon, Ill., 618-622-1717, 17thstreetbarbecue.com.
Lil' Mickey's Memphis Barbeque
A Place Worth Getting Lost For
Lil’ Mickey’s sits deep in St. Charles County, confusingly tucked a few blocks west of its nearest exit (Cave Springs Road). Get off there, and be on the lookout for the old-school hacienda-style Taco Bell turned Memphis barbecue mecca. Its barbecue shoulder sandwiches (pulled or chopped), topped with tangy slaw and the perfect sweet—but not too sweet—Memphis-style sauce, are the best you’ll get without a much longer drive. 1020 Cave Springs Blvd., St. Peters, 636-922-4227, lilmickeysbbq.com.
The Rib Shack
Let's Not Be Snooty About It
What bacon is for pretentious “foodies,” snoot is for the serious gourmet. It’s salty, crunchy-crispy; the aroma alone is seductive. Yes, the potential gross-out factor’s significant—it’s pig nose, after all. But sliced into thin chunks and deep-fried to a rich mahogany, layered atop white bread, with the Shack’s marvelous peppery-sweet barbecue sauce on top and on the side for dipping, a mound of collards and mac salad keeping it company, it’s a splendid, decidedly non-snooty indulgence. 8642 Natural Bridge, 314-427-1777, ribshackstl.com.
Main Street BBQ
We’ll wager the sliced-brisket and pulled-pork Boarish Steer sandwich pushes the needle above 8 ounces—even before the grilled onions, pickles, and squirt of spicy sauce. Opt for the homemade redskin potato salad and classic coleslaw, and get that leviathan cut in half or look around for a second set of hands. At $7.99, it’s the perfect splitter. 1620 Highway Z, Pevely, 636-475-3400, bbqonmain.com.
STL vs. KC BBQ ribs
“Comparing St. Louis barbecue to Kansas City’s is like comparing the American League to the National: The former had the limelight and now is a distant second. The same is true for barbecue. Now, there’s no question whose rib reigns supreme: Give the west-staters one taste of Pappy’s slow-smoked, mahogany-crusted porkaliciousness—crunchy on the outside, yet yielding—and they’ll realize they’ve been eating second-rate bones. Keep trying, K.C., but we’re still not sure you’re ready for the majors." —Hometowner Jeff Lehman, who eats out so often, he’s been dubbed the “patron saint of St. Louis dining.”
“I have enormous respect for St. Louis barbecue. I always cut my spareribs St. Louis–style, like that guy from St. Louis who learned it from that gal in Kansas City who was too humble to take credit for it. And although St. Louis has some ribs I like, K.C. has more ribs I like. In fact, K.C. leads the world in per capita barbecue rib consumption. In my opinion, ribs are best dry, not drowned in sauce. Sauced ribs make you wonder what evils the cook is covering up. No wonder St. Louis leads the world in per capita consumption of barbecue sauce!” —Ardie Davis, a founder of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), has written several books on ’cue. The most recent, America’s Best Ribs, came out May 1.
All in the Family
Otis and Earline Walker
Otis Walker, co-owner of Smoki O’s Bar-B-Que (1545 N. Broadway, 314-621-8180), wears an Africa-shaped gold pendant around his neck. “My roots,” he calls it, referring not just to the continent, but also to the gold and stones themselves. The gold comes from a nugget he inherited from his mother, Minnie Merle Walker, the original “meat master,” who also passed down her barbecue recipes and knowledge, and the four stones signify his family—himself; his wife and business partner, Earline; and their children, Rachel and Christopher, who work in the restaurant. Ultimately, Otis would like to add three more stones to the pendant, one for each grandchild.
St. Louis–style barbecue is the main attraction at Smoki O’s, but Otis and Earline are the stars. “Our menu memorializes our family,” says Earline, whose mother, Florence, used to carry copies of the restaurant’s menu in her purse, passing them out to strangers.
In its original incarnation, Smoki O’s was a stall at Soulard Farmers Market. Thanks to increased customer demand, Otis and Earline were able to buy a blighted property in north St. Louis in 1999 and rehab the space. July 12 marks the restaurant’s 15th anniversary, a milestone that holds particular significance for the family due to ongoing health problems. Suffering from polycystic kidney disease, the hereditary disease that killed his father, Otis received a kidney transplant last October. He’s also had heart valve–replacement surgery. Add Earline’s recent back surgery, and it’s understandable why Smoki O’s closed for nearly three months this year; it would be even more understandable for the Walkers to move on to something else. But as scheduled, the restaurant reopened on March 15, with well-wishing and hungry customers at the door.
The local barbecue community appears to be even tighter-knit than the larger restaurant scene. Otis considers Mike Emerson and Skip Steele friends, noting, “What we do here is, we compete against ourselves. I don’t compete against other houses.” Indeed, true connoisseurs would distinguish between Memphis-style ’cue served at Pappy’s and Bogart’s—with their smokers and rubs—and the St. Louis–style at Smoki O’s, where smokers take a back seat to the grill. Otis says what defines his barbecue as St. Louis–style are the cuts of meat (rib tips, pork steaks, and snoot), how they’re prepared (labor-intensive grilling that requires “handwork”), and the unusual sides offered by Earline.
Otis could write a dissertation on the subect of barbecue, and one could spend an afternoon listening to his stories. He’ll have plenty more to share after attending Danny Meyer’s annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party this month in New York. Otis won’t cook this year as he continues to heal from his transplant, but he isn’t slowing down and remains optimistic about his future. “I love a challenge,” he says. “It’s a challenge for me to get up in the morning. If you’re able to get up in the morning and go to work without pain and sickness, to go outside in the fresh air, that’s something. Take that.” —J.A.
Pork Steak to Feed a Foursome
At Clinton Hill Golf Course, the ’cue is named after regulars: Tay-Tay’s Grilled Chicken Breast Sammich, Brick Layer Bob’s Footlong Grilled Sausage… And they say Uncle Ken’s Best Tastin’ Unbelievably BIG Pork Steak weighs at least 2 pounds. We’ve seen it, and we believe. Big Mama’s BBQ at Clinton Hill, 3700 Old Collinsville, Swansea, Ill., 618-277-3724, bigmamasbbq.com.
Best BBQ Item in a Non-BBQ Restaurant
Pulled-Pork Sandwich, Winslow's Home
Bringing a bit of his Tennessee roots to St. Louis, chef Cary McDowell does things differently than we typically see “up north,” and his pulled-pork sandwich is no exception. Heaped onto a plump brioche bun and sprinkled with a dash of extra dry rub—à la Lion’s Choice—the sandwich is as moist as you’ll find anywhere. And if that’s not enough, the truly unique addition is McDowell’s white barbecue sauce—a mixture of mayonnaise, mustard, sour cream, garlic, and spices. 7213 Delmar, 314-725-7559, winslowshome.com.
Where the 'Cue Meets the Crescent Wrench
The Trading Post
If you let the signboards dissuade you, you’ll miss out on Prince Carter’s ribs, saucy chicken wings, and smoky links. Kids already know to go for Blue Bunny ice cream, plus candy and chips. And inside is the best sign of all: “Free bike repair for kids 12 and under, Sat 9 to noon.” Says Carter, “It’s my small way of giving back.” 1951 Hebert, 314-932-9700.
The Non-Meat Division
BBQ Expert Scott Thomas on What Else to Grill on the Grill
The item receiving a lot of local attention is, believe it or not, romaine lettuce, cut in half and grilled just long enough to give it a char. I was ridiculed mightily the first time I tried it, and then came the raves. The lettuce has a surprising sweetness that’s brought out by grilling.
Add in some garlic and gratings of hard Romano cheese (or even a Caesar dressing), and what at first sounds silly will make perfect sense.
Whether you make it on a pizza stone with fresh pizza dough or with a premade crust put right over the heat, pizza is best grilled. Set up a toppings bar next to the grill with uncooked, personal pizza crusts for a great twist on the traditional backyard barbecue.
Crostini means “little toasts” in Italian, and while using a grill to toast bread might seem like overkill, it adds a certain unexpected-but-welcome smokiness. Top with minced garlic, your favorite herb, and some creamy Havarti cheese. The results are magical—far better than conventional preparations.
Smoked, Stuffed Yellow Bell Peppers
These make an excellent side or appetizer. Halve yellow peppers and stuff them with cream cheese, grape tomatoes, and pepperoni. Smoke the pepper boats for an hour, then layer on sliced Monterey Jack cheese and serve after the cheese finishes melting on the grill.
What’s better than peaches with hot buttered rum over ice cream? Grilled peaches served the same way. Searing the peaches and caramelizing the sugars takes the fruit’s naturally sweet flavor to a level that can’t be achieved by just warming it in an oven.
Detailed, step-by-step instructions can be found on Thomas’ website, grillinfools.com.
Ode to Rib Tips
The rib tip might be the insider’s secret of St. Louis barbecue. It’s a people’s cut, seldom found at tidy mainstream ’cue houses. Tips are the result of trimming pork ribs to make the so-called St. Louis rib, taking off the top and bottom to tidy them up. They’re structured on meat and gristle, with a little bone here and there. As a result, they’re moist and succulent. Yes, they’re finger food, but so are ribs. Unlike ribs, though, they almost never dry out. I once saw them piled on top of French fries instead of white bread. That bread, soaking up the sauce, is irresistible to some (including me). My younger child was predicted to emerge looking like a rib tip because of the quantities I downed from Papa GK’s years ago. The Norwegian branch of my family was in town recently, and I offered them some real St. Louis barbecue: Rib tips beat pork steaks hands-down. Tips are the top of the food chain. —A.L.P
Which One is Better?
Two experts blow some smoke.
Scott Thomas (professional backyard griller) vs. Mike Emerson (seasoned barbecue professional)
Briquettes or lump charcoal?
ST: Unless you’re using a Kamado-style grill that requires lump or want the slightly higher temps, save the money and go with briquettes. The taste difference is nonexistent. I stock up every Memorial Day and Labor Day at home-improvement stores.
ME: For smoking, I like briquettes. The
uniformity allows for a more controllable temperature. For grilling, I like lump. Grilling requires hot, short cooks.
I get a hotter fire with lump.
Spice rub or sauce?
ST: It’s hard to make a sauce that is a complement to the meat. The sauce is usually the main attraction and the meat a sideshow, when it should be the other way around. A rub can help accentuate the flavors of the meat while not overpowering it. Ninety percent of the time I prefer a good, well-balanced rub.
ME: My rubs are very herbal and don’t change much during the cooking process, so I know exactly how my finished product will taste. Barbecue sauce will have more variations in flavor.
Hickory or fruitwood?
ST: If I’m hitting the meat with a barbecue sauce, I use hickory almost exclusively so the smoke flavor stands up to the sauce, as hickory is more robust than most fruitwoods. If I’m going with a rub—which I do most of the time—then I’ll go with a fruitwood for a subtler smoke flavor, peach and pear being my favorites.
ME: It’s pretty well-known that I’m a fruitwood guy. The milder smoke allows more of the rub and meat flavor to step to the front. Hardwoods, like hickory, create a different profile—not a bad one, just more smoke/wood dominant.
Baby back ribs or spareribs?
ST: The spares are more uniform and make for better competition ribs, since presentation is one of the judging criteria, but I love those little meaty baby back ribs. If I’m cooking for a big crowd, then I go with spares based on cost. If it’s for myself, though, I’ll take the BBRs every single time.
ME: Baby backs are a little meatier and more forgiving, so they’ll take a longer cook without drying out. Spares will get that “fall off the bone” texture that some people like. I like my rib to have a little more integrity, or “chew.”
Our Fave Sides
The five best BBQ side dishes in town
It’s been almost four years since Mike Emerson restored our faith in the sweet-potato fry, and to this day, Pappy’s remains the gold standard for the dish in St. Louis. A dusting of salt and sugar complement but never overshadow thin shards of sweet potato, best enjoyed four or five at a time. Pappy’s Smokehouse, 3106 Olive, 314-535-4340, pappyssmokehouse.com.
Sweet Corn Pudding
Long the dominion of potluck dinners and fundraiser cookbooks, corn pudding gets new life from BBQ ASAP’s Mary Randall, who turns out a light and airy side that captures the spirit of soufflé in the form of a sweet and savory casserole. BBQ ASAP, 15581 Manchester, 636-256-1908, bbqasap.com.
Pardon the hyperbole, but the fried biscuits at Boodles BBQ should be required eating for all St. Louis barbecue hounds. Rip ’em open and top ’em with sauce—or better yet, honey. These little hand grenades of flavor leave us asking, “Um, more, please?” Boodles BBQ, 10024 Gravois, 314-631-0000, boodlesbbq.com.
Rumor has it that the pit beans at Bogart’s start life at the bottom of the smoker, slowly absorbing the smoky essence and juices of the briskets barbecuing above. Boston and Kansas City, you can keep your beans; we’ve found an example worthy of our own namesake. Bogart’s Smokehouse, 1627 S. Ninth, 314-621-3107, bogartssmokehouse.com.
Sour pickles, a salty and golden crust dipped in sweet ranch dressing—what’s not to love about deep-fried pickles? Stumpy’s gets a nod for eschewing pickle chips in favor of hand-dipping dill spears into its own Southern-inspired batter before frying, making for a seriously tasty and unusual barbecue accoutrement. Stumpy’s House of Bar-B-Que, 620 Jungermann, St. Peters, 636-441-7222, stumpyshouseofbbq.com.
Smoke or Fire
This grill does it all
Whether you prefer a New York strip steak seared over a rocket-hot grill or a slab of baby backs cooked low and slow, this grill’s got you covered. Fairly new on the market, the compact Akorn Kamado Kooker from Char-Griller maintains a steady heat (high or low), due to two cooking vents and its insulated, ceramic-wall construction. The egg-shaped convective cooker has a cast-iron cooking grate, a built-in temperature gauge, and a pair of metal fold-down shelves, plus a secondary grate and an optional Smokin’ Stone for indirect cooking. Even the wheels (and locking caster) are well-made. This grill is serious competition for traditional Kamado-style cookers, at a third of the price. $299. Lowe’s, multiple locations, 800-445-6937, lowes.com.
Off the Rack
Our favorite regional BBQ sauces available at area grocery stores
Super Smokers BBQ St. Louis Style Sweet & Mild Barbecue Sauce
It’s molasses-thick, smoky, the color of peppered cinnamon. Perfectly balanced between savory and sweet, it graciously introduces the flavor of pork to your palate. A hint: It’s even better with chicken.
Bandana’s Southern Style Original Bar-B-Q Sauce
The original tastes like hard cider mixed with mustard, brown sugar, vinegar, and hickory-smoked love. It’s a classic, K.C.–style sauce—the texture silky, its perfume perfectly matched to slow-cooked meats. It makes a sublime sauce for dipping.
Maull’s Barbecue Sauce
Sunday afternoon. You. Mike Shannon. Both popping a cold, frosty one. Him at the mic; you, grillside, with pork steaks and a bottle of sweet, grainy, peppery Maull’s. The essence of St. Louis summer barbecue. Heh, heh, heh.
Blues Hog Barbecue Sauce
It’s local barbecue’s bad boy, with a restrained sweetness and slightly spicy kick, along with a lingering, delicious heat. The texture’s jammy, the aroma smoky—this is a sauce to make kissing a pig a delicious delight. —D.L.
Put Out the Fire
The perfect liquid pairings
For Sweet Barbecue
A Real Illusion
This refreshing cocktail has just enough tartness to balance a sweet barbecue sauce. The gin adds a floral component that’s complemented by berry notes.
• 2 ounces Plymouth gin
• ¼ ounce crème de cassis
• ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
• ¹⁄³ ounce agave syrup
• 1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
• Fresh sage
• Fresh blackberries
Muddle one blackberry and two sage leaves with agave syrup. Add other ingredients and shake. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with fresh blackberries.
For Smoky Barbecue
Watch Your Step
The peaty smoke from an Islay Scotch and aged tequila is bold enough to complement a smoky rub. The cocktail contains just a touch of sweetness to make it easy for drinking.
• 1 ¼ ounce Ardbeg single-malt
Scotch (or equivalent Islay Scotch)
• 1 ounce Chinaco Añejo tequila
• 1 ounce Four Roses Single Barrel
bourbon (or equivalent)
• ¾ ounce simple syrup
• 2 dashes bitters
Stir and strain. Add a lemon twist.
—Adam Frager, Blood & Sand
For Sweet Barbecue
Schlafly Summer Lager
Popular and readily available, this beer doesn’t try to muscle its way in front of the barbecue; it merely balances barbecue sauce’s power with its crisp, clean, malty taste.
For Smoky Barbecue
O’Fallon Smoked Porter
It’s a fantastic barbecue beer, smoky in its own right. The roastiness of a porter helps cut through some of the sweetness of a St. Louis–style barbecue sauce. —Mike Sweeney, STL Hops, stlhops.com
High-octane zinfandel often gets the nod here, but I disagree. A better choice is a lighter-profile wine, like the 2009 Château de la Terrière Beaujolais-Villages, ripe and jammy with tastes of wild cherries and berry fruits and notes of black pepper, cured meats, and herbes de Provence. Its soft tannin profile and lower alcohol content make it especially barbecue-friendly. $19.49. 33 Wine Shop & Tasting Bar, 33wine.com.
What Works Better
My choice for the “right” barbecue wine is the 2009 Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese from the Mosel Valley, with a taste of ripe green apples, peaches, and pears, and a lime Jolly Rancher and warm honeysuckle finish. The combination of sweetness, lower alcohol, and low service temperature (serve cold, especially if it’s hot outside) makes barbecue better, if not memorable. $28.99. 33 Wine Shop & Tasting Bar. —Chris Hoel, SLM’s “Liquid Assets” columnist
Edited by George Mahe, Written by Jenny Agnew, Bill Burge, Chris Hoel, Ann Lemons Pollack, Rose Maura Lorre, Dave Lowry, George Mahe, Scott Thomas, and Andrew Mark Veety