Canada’s first and only stand-alone hospital for people with HIV/AIDS has opened it’s very own pop-up restaurant—and it’s run by a team of HIV+ cooks.
Casey House in Toronto recently ran a ‘Smash Stigma’ survey and found that 50 per cent of Canadians wouldn’t share a meal with, or eat food prepared by, somebody living with HIV/AIDS.
Joanne Simons—the Casey House CEO—said the survey results were “staggering” but inspired an idea to get the conversation going and help Canadians challenge their beliefs about HIV.
“The sharing of a meal with your friends and family is a lovely way to show compassion,” Simons tells SBS.
“So we thought the dinner table was a great place for folks to have a real conversation about stigma and HIV and we launched June’s restaurant on Monday night with great success.”
June's HIV+ Eatery is helping to smash the misconception that HIV can be transmitted through food preparation or the sharing of food.
The team of 14 HIV+ cooks have been working with chef Matt Basile (from Toronto’s Fidel Gastro), learning how to prepare a four-course meal for the hundreds of guests who have bought tickets.
“We started off with a northern Thai potato and leek soup followed by a grilled vegetable salad,” Simons says of the Monday night service. “Then we had rapini and skirt steak, a pasta with smoked arctic char and a fabulous tiramisu to finish it all off.”
Simons says working at June’s HIV+ Eatery has been a meaningful experience for the team of cooks—who wear black, red and white aprons emblazoned with phrases like 'Kiss the HIV+ Cook', 'I got HIV from pasta. Said no-one ever' and 'I'm not a cook with HIV, I'm a cook.'
“They are all already active within the HIV community and are very public about their HIV status,” Simons says of the group.
“I think that the experience – learning how to cook these meals [and] working in a kitchen – has been very empowering for them. The group all knew each other previously but they’ve become this really amazing family of support.
“Their courage is shining through to be the face of this disease and standing very firmly in saying ‘Recognise me for my humanity as opposed to my disease’.”
The huge success of June’s means that the pop-up will run again next year but Simons adds that Casey House has its sights set on expanding the project.
“We certainly will open June’s on an annual basis but hopefully, with all the international interest, it’s something we can take worldwide for World AIDS Day,” she says.
Simons tells SBS that the pop-up is all about encouraging people to challenge their misconceptions about HIV/AIDS and “really taking the time to listen and learn”.
“We need to try and recognise people for who they are,” she says.
“Nobody would have chosen this. They have been down a life path or journey that has resulted in them being HIV positive, but that’s such a small part of the story.
“So to really understand that these people have hopes and dreams and lives and that people need to take the time to educate themselves.”