The team behind Brisbane’s Joy welcomes a new openness to the secretive inner circles of Australia’s fine dining scene.
Chef and restaurateur Sarah Baldwin treats her diners as if they are her only guest that evening, which in practice isn’t far from the truth. Her eponymous 10-seater restaurant Joy in Fortitude Valley, which she co-founded with chef Tim Scott in 2019, has proven hugely popular as a result.
With a unique small plate, seasonal concept and fixed price menu, the restaurant has built a devout fanbase and become one of the Entertainment Quarter’s most coveted food spots, commonly booked out three months in advance – and at the time of publishing, currently until January 2022.
Situated opposite the infamous The Beat Megaclub, it’s a spot you may miss at first, the letters J-O-Y followed by a full stop on a window, the only thing signifying its location. It’s this kind of exclusivity and understated allure that gives the venue a status of its own, a place to be discovered or recommended by word of mouth, rather than through any kind of online listicle – although those exist too.
“…We must rely on our customers. We can’t survive on anything else right now.”
With just two sittings a night for 10 people at a time, Chef Baldwin decides every facet of what diners are given to eat and serves it herself. “It’s not often that you sit directly in front of the chef, that’s cooking for you,” says Baldwin. “I’m able to interact with everybody and talk them through what I’m doing. The whole venue is pretty much split down the middle.”
Maddie Sim is the only other staff member and handles front of house. She greets guests, serves them either a la carte or paired drink options and generally makes sure there is a smile on every face. The cuisine can range dramatically from Japanese to modern Australian to traditional European. “It’s an expression of whatever’s going on in my life and surrounding me at the moment,” Baldwin states.
With such a small number of seats available, every bum counts. But with lockdowns making scheduling problematic, the team have had to devise creative ways to shuffle people around when required. Currently open three nights a week with two weekday sessions slated to deal with any overflow, Baldwin must consider any threat of new restrictions seriously.
When the first lockdown came to Queensland in 2020, Joy closed for six months, a time which coincided with co-founder Scott exiting the business. The complicated 4-square meter rule per person meant Joy fell into a grey area that made it untenable to open. During that time, Baldwin also chose to steer clear of takeaway. “It just wasn’t for us,” she says of her decision at the time.
“It [Covid-19] put a lot into perspective, a reminder of the balance we need in life.”
However, although Covid-19 is responsible for myriad problems, Baldwin has been surprised at some welcome industry changes too – the removal of the stigma around takeaway for high-end dining being one of them. She says that prior to the pandemic, most fine dining establishments would have turned up their nose at the mere thought of putting their “food in a takeaway container” but with businesses forced to consider the option to make a dollar, restaurants across the country have changed tact. “I think I would feel a lot more comfortable doing it… make it a bit more fun.”
Baldwin says another consequence of lockdown has shown itself, a hesitancy to what would have once been considered an attractive aspect to dining at Joy – a chat with a stranger. “There was a period there where we made sure people were feeling comfortable…” Baldwin explains. “There is a bit of a barrier there for sure. But we have noticed when customers are sitting down, they’re introducing themselves without shaking hands, having a little chat while they’re waiting for us to unlock the door.”
The new openness and community spirit among restaurants and chefs have also been a welcome change for Baldwin, who has long considered the hospitality industry of being a little “clicky’ in the past”, especially amongst fine-dining focused establishments. “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants haven’t happened in a couple of years. People are really latched on to those awards and reviews but now we must rely on our customers. We can’t survive on anything else right now.”
Baldwin is looking forward to the next phase of Joy, happy to put some things in the rearview but keen to hold onto others. “It [Covid-19] put a lot into perspective, a reminder of the balance we need in life. I think that my food is better because of it. I think that my service is better. The restaurant is better. I know I can be a better boss by being happy… I feel like I can share more of myself with customers… That was a pretty valuable lesson.”