What It Was Like At The Restaurant Where All The Chefs Have HIV

June’s HIV+ Eatery is fighting that myth that HIV can somehow be transmitted through food.

June’s HIV+ Eatery in Toronto was buzzing with people, many of whom were seated all the way down the bar or bunched around tables in groups of four, six, and eight. Casey House, the organization responsible for the eatery, is a hospital for people living with HIV/AIDS and June’s is its pop-up restaurant: The world’s first HIV-positive eatery run by 14 guest chefs living with HIV. It’s part of its Break Bread Smash Stigma campaign to fight against HIV stigma.

Leading into the event, there was a sponsored ad on Facebook and in the comments section a few of people expressed concern about the eatery, worrying that having HIV-positive chefs would pose a public health risk. One commenter wrote, “Chefs often cut their fingers. Bon appétit.” Others pointed out that HIV can’t survive outside the body long enough to be contagious, but it didn’t matter. Commenters continued to post their ignorance and fear.

June’s seemed a like a great idea: Fight that myth that HIV can somehow be transmitted through food. As early as 1985—more than 30 years ago–it was clear that HIV couldn’t be transmitted via food, water, or utensils, and yet anxiety on the topic remains.

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“We made amazing strides over 30 or 40 years,” says Guy Bethell, a guest chef at June’s and a former vice chair of the Casey House board of directors. Though we’ve been diligent at fighting the disease, Bethell notes, “the study that Casey House did connected to this project showed [that] only half of Canadians would knowingly share food or eat food prepared by somebody who is HIV-positive. When it’s broken down demographically, seniors and millennials were the two largest groups that were opposed to this. What’s with that? You know, we’ve come so far, yet we have so far to go.”

The study Bethell notes was conducted as part of the Break Bread Smash Stigma campaign and came from surveying 1,633 Canadians. Joanne Simons, the CEO of Casey House, says that outside of the survey, they also spoke to clients, donors, community agencies, and queer millennials about HIV today. Many of the millennials thought that HIV was no longer relevant to them—that people weren’t at risk any longer and it was really just about taking a pill. Some donors believed that public conversations around HIV weren’t happening and as a result, important conversations were no longer being had, which might be why there’s this widening gap in knowledge where things learned over 30 years ago are lost.

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Bethell hopes that the pop-up will create a positive dialogue and a conversation that will change minds. June’s recruited celebrity chef Matt Basile from Netflix’s Rebel Without a Kitchen to lead the team and train them—as none of the guest chefs are actually chefs. Basile pitched the idea of the meal being served family-style so people could have conversations and walk away having learned something, while also creating the feeling of community. He sees family styles meals as engaging and comforting. There was a four courses, primarily brought out on large platters to share among the table, and a soup.

Throughout the evening all sorts of conversations were being had, everything from love and sex to politics and Donald Trump. HIV and stigma were also discussed: One woman who was visiting from Portland expressed surprise about people still having a problem eating food prepared by a person living with HIV. Does the knowledge gap have something to do with how information is sometimes taken for granted? These topics may be talked about less as a result since it’d be assumed that it’s something that everybody knows.

Carlos Idibouo, another guest chef, tells a story about one of his neighbors back in his home country, the Ivory Coast. His neighbor attempted to burn her niece alive after the niece helped cook meals for his neighbor’s children, but hadn’t disclosed her HIV status. When the woman found out that her niece was positive, she was convinced that her children were HIV-positive, too, solely because they ate the food her niece had prepared. The woman beat her, cut her, and poured gasoline all over her niece. She wasn’t arrested for what she’d done; she just moved from the neighborhood.

Bensimon Byrne

Bensimon Byrne
“When people say that there is stigma related to people living with HIV who work in restaurants, it’s not in the imagination, it’s true,” Idibouo says.

It’s still disheartening to think that 30 years later so many people could be so backwards with their thinking. The U=U campaign (Undetectable = Untransmittable) is gaining traction, promoting the awareness that if a person living with HIV is on antiretroviral therapy and has achieved an undetectable viral load for at least six months, then they pose no risk of transmitting the virus to others—a fact the CDC recently supported. Has Simons seen a shift in attitudes as a result of such initiatives?

“There has been a lot of great attention and conversation about [U=U] but I still feel it’s very much that it’s kind of within the circle of community, and still hasn’t yet, I think, reached all of those folks who may be at risk for contracting HIV, and so, no, I don’t think there’s been a dramatic change,” she explains, pointing out that they didn’t survey for this, as a sort of disclaimer.

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“One of the reasons why Casey House started a bit before [U=U] is because, I think, before people are willing to kind of hear and listen to what U = U means they actually need to first understand just the basics, you know, the real basics of HIV. So I think both of them need to work kind of in parallel with each other so that we are trying to reach as many people as possible and really kind of layer the message so that it is all comprehensive.”

It was becoming apparent how the act of conversation was critical. When asked earlier what Bethell thought could be done to fight stigma beyond the pop-up, he said he believed that it was about keeping the conversation alive. Makes sense.

It’s important to keep talking about stigma while also discussing things like serosorting, what undetectable viral load really means and basic things like the ways in which HIV is transmitted.

We need to talk about how the only thing dangerous about the gingerbread tiramisu with coffee whipped cream, burnt meringue, boozy maple syrup, and blitzed dark chocolate espresso beans that they served for dessert was the calories. Fearing such a divine concoction for any reason other than that is daft.

Mike Miksche has written for The Advocate, Slate, Vice, Lambda Literary and The Gay and Lesbian Review.
@MikeMiksche