Sarah Baldwin is behind Brisbane’s most-lauded tiny restaurant. At just 10 seats, Joy is pocket-sized, but the chef wouldn’t have it any other way. As she puts it: “There’s nothing that doesn’t go through my hands at Joy.”

Hospitality talks to Baldwin about going from a dishie to a chef, finding her calling by the sea and creating an experience at her restaurant Joy that gives as much to the customers as it does to the people running the show (hint, it’s a two-person gig).

Sarah Baldwin got her start in hospitality in high school, working as a dishie at a local Chinese restaurant. She moved into front-of-house and barista roles soon after, however a change of ownership at her café workplace resulted in the team being let go.

Baldwin decided to move into cheffing after a friend told her about a job opportunity. She became an apprentice at 20 years old — an age considered ‘ripe’ at the time. The budding chef spent three years learning the ropes before she shed her green apprentice skin and moved into a more serious role.

A stint at the now-closed Urbane Restaurant ensued before she decided to move to Sydney and join the Six Penny team. “I worked there for a couple of years, and the only reason I left was because Sydney wasn’t the place for me,” says Baldwin. “I always had the goal to go back to Brisbane, but working in Sydney or Melbourne is part of what you do when you’re a Brisbane chef. In Sydney, there was a lot of ambition and people who pushed you to be better, which I loved, but it’s such a busy city and I found it so suffocating.”

The chef decided to take a time out from fine dining and moved to Northern New South Wales with Tim Scott, a fellow chef and her partner at the time. Baldwin commenced an education degree and began working in an all-female kitchen on the side.

It was here, by the sea, where things really fell into place. “Working in a stress-free café was a nice reminder that cooking doesn’t have to destroy you and completely take over your life,” says Baldwin. “I studied primary education, but I found myself taking days off uni to work … being a teacher wasn’t quite it for me. Working at the café was the first time in so long where it was just cooking because it was yum and people enjoyed eating. It was a necessary reminder of why I cook.”

Scott and Baldwin later headed off on a road trip around Tasmania. Plenty of food and conversations abounded, which led to life-altering decisions. “We both quit our jobs and decided to build our own restaurant in Brisbane,” says Baldwin. “While Tim was driving, I was booking appointments to see commercial sites. The second site we looked at was the one we decided to build Joy in, and now I have Joy.”

Joy has been described as “meaningful”, “highly engaging” and “personal”, and it’s easy to understand why. Baldwin and Scott toyed with the idea of opening a mid-sized restaurant, but 10 was the magic number. “The space is 36sqm and we knew 10 was something we could manage between ourselves if one person stepped away, like Tim has,” says Baldwin. “I wanted to be in touch with every single part of the business.”

After opening its doors in 2019, Joy operated with Scott and Baldwin working as both the chefs and the front-of-house team, creating a multi-course set menu oft-compared to an omakase experience. The restaurant quickly scooped up prestigious accolades, receiving a Good Food rating of 16/20 and two hats in 2019.

When asked to describe what Joy’s offering is all about (images are purposely few and far between on the internet), Baldwin uses the word “holistic”; the restaurant is a space where food and service exist on an equal playing field.

“It’s always been food-focused and an experience where we can give the customer everything they need while they’re in our space,” says the chef. “We don’t want to force anyone to eat our egos or our ideas. I have a restaurant so I have an outlet to feed people; food is my love language. If it did stop being a food-focused, hospitality-focused experience, I would probably close Joy.”

In 2020, Joy hibernated during the pandemic for six months. Scott decided to step away from the business in August, but Baldwin knew she should keep going. “Selling Joy wasn’t an option for me and I wasn’t ready to let go,” she says. “I figured if it was going to close anyway, I should try harder and do it myself. There were definitely moments of self-doubt and if I could do it without Tim, but I had the benefit of the closure to take the time to make it my restaurant.”

The media attention from Scott’s exit also didn’t help; with outlets insinuating the ‘chef’ of the restaurant had left. “We are both chefs, but because of the way we operated service, people assumed I wasn’t a chef,” says Baldwin. “The articles said the chef had stepped away and now Sarah is running it. It was bad timing because I was having moments of, ‘Can I do this?’ and then I had the media saying, ῾Sarah isn’t a chef’.”

Women make up more than half of the industry, but stereotypes are still floating around — especially in the dining public. “There are still customers who ask me who the chef is … someone leant over to their husband the other day and asked if he thought I was the chef,” says Baldwin.

“I’ve been surrounded by men throughout my whole career and the first time I worked with all women was in Northern New South Wales. It took me a while to get used to interacting with women and finding my own personality without worrying about being tough or weak. Being a chef is a male-led role; I don’t think it’s our customers’ fault for not assuming I’m a chef. It’s just that if there was a man standing next to me in chef’s whites and I’m pouring wine, guests are going to assume the man is the chef.”

During the time Scott and Baldwin worked alongside each other, the faux pas was common, but he was quick to intervene. “Tim and I were in charge of certain dishes, but often people would direct all their compliments to him,” says Baldwin. “He was so good at saying it was me who made the dish; to have that constant support was really reassuring.”

After moving ahead with her decision to keep Joy open, Baldwin made another choice: to be the sole chef of Joy. “I had to think about if I wanted another chef and mimic the roles Tim and I had or take control of the cooking and have someone do front of house,” she says. Baldwin recruited Maddie Sim, who previously worked as a bartender at Savile Row to take care of front of house, altering Joy’s dynamic for the first time.

“I spent six weeks before we reopened doing menu testing and it was really important to write a menu that was mine, which was really hard.” If you try to seek out Joy’s menu, you’re in for a treasure hunt. Being menu-free is one of Joy’s core points of difference.

Baldwin doesn’t mention a particular cuisine or direction when discussing what the Joy experience is all about. Instead, she breaks it down like this: “I think about things I like to eat or have eaten and want to share with other people, but maybe in a way they haven’t had before,” she says. “The main goal for me is to have delicious food that highlights what other people in the industry are doing. A menu at Joy is 10–12 courses with lots of little bites in between.”

The notion of cohesion is ever-present throughout the menu, with each dish linking together to tell a story. “When I think about balancing a single dish, it’s not typical to the way you’re taught to do it; I think about balancing an entire menu,” says Baldwin. “I do a lot of building around vegetables rather than proteins and every dish relies on the course before and the one after to help.

“I forget we are a little bit strange by not telling anyone what they’re eating because we decided to take away menus. When people see a menu, it gives them an opportunity to think, ‘I don’t like beef tartare, so I’m already nervous about the third course’. When they sit down, I explain to them I’ve prepared the food and they just need to work out what they want to drink. After the second or third course (all the courses are dropped with extensive explanations), they’re eating as if they’ve chosen the food. It takes a few dishes to gain that trust.”

A core perk that comes with Joy’s size is that Baldwin can focus all her energy on just two people; but it’s people who offer the biggest challenge. If you follow Joy on Instagram, you would have noticed Baldwin posting, reminding people of the restaurant’s number of seats and to exercise a little kindness.

Unfortunately, manners, patience and courtesy are lost on angry diners who have missed out. “People want more seats than we have,” says Baldwin. “We don’t have someone who handles reservations; it’s just Maddie and I. Customers get frustrated when they don’t get the booking they want and often direct that anger via email or Instagram in a really aggressive way.

“They say: ‘Get a different booking system, yours doesn’t work; it’s not fair; you’re abusing your customers’ — basically all variations of, ‘I didn’t get what I want and I’m angry about it’. It’s hard when you’re working so many hours trying to create a customer experience and those few emails will often overshadow the other beautiful things that are happening.”

Joy is Baldwin’s outlet and she’s naturally protective of the space she’s worked so hard to create. The chef often lets angry messages fall by the wayside, but they do take their toll. “If I respond and said, ‘I’m so sorry if I upset you, let me see where I can fit you in’, they would have to sit at the bench knowing they hurled all that abuse at me and I would have to give selfless service knowing they’ve caused me a lot of heartache,” says Baldwin.

“I can’t let people take control of it just because they’re angry. Hospitality is run by humans and we are doing this because we love to create an experience for customers. It’s not a job we can do light-heartedly; we really care about hospitality as an industry and we want to keep being able to share it. But it’s important people try and understand it a little bit.”

Bookings are the main pit, but the peak of running Joy is deceptively underrated. “The best moments are when you’ve done a really good service, everything has gone smoothly and everyone has left happy,” says Baldwin. “Those days are the greatest reminder of why Joy exists. I don’t need a lot of huge-scale achievements; if a customer thanks me on the way out, it’s enough to know what I’m doing is worth it.”