Ray Sheehan has lived in odd-named places. First it was Neptune. Now it’s New Egypt. Both in New Jersey. Perhaps that’s part of what sparks his barbecue inventiveness. Because four years ago, he quit his job to work full-time in his own thriving business—called BBQ Buddha (because barbecue is a religious experience)—selling seasonings and sauces.
What came before the barbecue biz?
I was food service director for a natural food store. Before that, I was a baker for a long time. I used to be the opening person, making all the muffins and scones and cookies. I just got tired of the hours. If I’m going to be up that early, I want to have a brisket going.
Why move on to grilling?
My grandparents used to have a farm in Puerto Rico and do open-fire cooking. I fell in love with that—the smell of the wood, the open flames, being outside. I was 10 or 11. Every job I’ve had has involved food.
As a seasoning professional, is there a no-no to dry rubs?
If you’re searing over high heat, you don’t want a lot of sugar in your rub, because the sugar will burn. Whereas that same rub might be fantastic for a slow cook, because it will slowly caramelize on the meat into a nice bark.
Got any grill care secrets?
Where people make the mistake is not oiling the grates after cleaning them. You’re not going to get clean grill marks and a clean sear if you don’t clean the grill and oil it.
And what’s your technique?
You want to get your grill nice and hot to burn off any bits from the last cook. Then brush the grates clean. The grill’s still on for all this. Then oil them to help prevent sticking. I dip a folded paper towel in a little olive oil and use tongs to wipe the grates. Don’t use too much oil—not even a tablespoon. A little goes a long way here.
Is there a story behind the clean grill obsession?
When I first started out catering, I was using a customer’s grill. I turned it on to preheat and went inside to cut vegetables. Nobody else was home yet. When I came out ten minutes later, flames were shooting out of the knobs. I grabbed the tongs and tried to turn the knob, but that melted right off. I finally got it off. The people came home and the father-in-law said he’d been cooking hamburgers before and grease went everywhere. They never cleaned their grill, and grease was down in the knobs. I learned that whenever you’re doing a job, use your own tools. It was a nightmare.
What about indirect grilling. Any insights?
I like to put a drip pan underneath big pieces of meat on the indirect side with some apple juice and sliced onions in it. And keep the lid closed. You want the heat generated off the bottom to bounce off the top and come down on the meat. It’s like an oven. Open the lid and you’re going to increase your cook time by 10 to 15 minutes.
What’s indirect grilling good for?
A good steak. I love to do a steak over direct heat to sear it, but then to ease it into the doneness that I want, use indirect. I love grilling fruits and veg the same way. Start on the direct side and finish over indirect. Not enough people are adventurous enough to grill more fruits and vegetables.
What’s your grilling fruit of choice?
Watermelon. One of my favorite things to grill and one of my most requested for salads. It gives you fantastic grill marks. You lose some of the water, and it almost becomes savory like a squash. Unlike peaches. Grilling peaches brings out more of their sweetness. With watermelon, I put on a balsamic dressing, toasted pistachios, and unsweetened coconut flakes.
You love steak. How do you choose a good one?
Look for marbling. You don’t want too large of veins, though, because that fat will never render out. I’m looking for the grade of Choice or higher. I would not choose a Select. With Choice, you get a little more flavor, not as chewy. Go at least 1- to 1¼-inch-thick. Thicker steak is more forgiving and juicier. Trust your butcher. Not that I’m a steak snob, but I’d rather wait until I can afford a better cut of meat because I don’t have it that often.
What haven’t you grilled yet, but want to?
A whole hog. The big draw is cooking the whole animal at once—so many different parts that you cook at all different times and temps and being able to smoke the whole thing and have all of it come out really good. That’s what I’m looking to face this year.