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How One Pop-Up Restaurant Is Fighting Stigma Against HIV/AIDS

Nov 24, 2017
Originally published on November 27, 2017 9:41 pm

This month diners in Toronto were treated to a four-course meal at a pop-up restaurant called June's. The menu included Northern Thai leek and potato soup with a hint of curry, a pasta served with smoked arctic char followed by garlic rapini and flank steak. The entire meal was topped off with a boozy tiramisu for dessert.

In addition to a mouthwatering meal, the chefs at June's also served a message which they wore on their shirts: "Break bread. Smash stigma."

Worldwide there are more than 30 million people living with HIV/AIDs, including more than a million in the U.S. The two-day event was a fundraiser put on by Casey House, Canada's only stand-alone hospital for HIV/AIDS treatment. Everyone in the kitchen was HIV-positive.

After running a survey in which 50 percent of Canadians said they wouldn't eat a meal knowingly prepared by someone with HIV, the hospital decided to put on the project.

Casey House's CEO Joanne Simons says the point of the project was to get people talking about the stigmas that still surrounds HIV/AIDS. June's event was a success and Simons says they plan to do another run in Toronto. Simons says they've also had interest globally and are "starting to work on a plan to roll this out elsewhere."

On how the experience was for the HIV-positive staff

There were 14 people who are HIV-positive. They were led by head chef Matt Basile, who is very popular in Toronto — owns a restaurant, has food trucks. And he worked with the chefs to co-create the menu. I think that they felt very empowered to be able to speak up and to be able to offer a meal that was absolutely divine.

On questions diners had about HIV/AIDS

We were receiving many questions about, "Well, can I get HIV through food? What happens if a chef cuts their finger in the kitchen?" I mean the answer is absolutely not. There is no way to contract HIV through the preparation of food and if a chef did cut themselves during the preparation of a meal we would treat it just like we would anybody whether they were HIV-positive or not. You obviously apply first aid, you sanitize the area, you throw out any food that may have had blood on it. And also the virus has a very limited lifespan outside of the body and with the heat and the light within a kitchen environment, the virus would not survive.

On how stigmas about HIV/AIDS have changed

Because the treatment and medication support over the past decade has become a lot more effective, people can live well with this disease and live into very ripe old age. But there's still a lot of myth and education is required. Unfortunately, for our clients, who are some of the most vulnerable in the community, they experience stigma on a day-to-day basis from their friends, family, coworkers, other health care professionals, so it's still a very real issue.

Thomas Lu produced the audio version of this story. Wynne Davis adapted it for Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ELISE HU, HOST:

This month, diners in Toronto were treated to a four-course meal at a pop-up restaurant called June's. In addition to the food, the chefs at June's also served a message which they wore on their shirts - break bread, smash stigma. The two-day event was a fundraiser put on by Casey House, Canada's only HIV/AIDS treatment hospital, and everyone in the kitchen was HIV-positive. The hospital's CEO, Joanne Simons, says the point of the project was to get people talking about the stigma that still surrounds HIV.

JOANNE SIMONS: We ran a Smash Stigma survey that polled Canadians, and 50 percent of Canadians said that they wouldn't knowingly eat a meal prepared by somebody with HIV. So hence the concept of the pop-up restaurants and June's HIV-positive eatery.

HU: What about the people who work there at the restaurant? What was it like for the staff to wear their HIV-positive status on their shirts, on their aprons?

SIMONS: There were 14 people who are HIV-positive. They were led by head chef Matt Basile, who is very popular in Toronto, owns a restaurant, has food trucks. And he worked with the chefs to co-create the menu. I think that they felt very empowered to be able to speak up and to be able to offer a meal that was absolutely divine.

HU: Did they have to have any conversations with customers who might have not - who might have needed education?

SIMONS: Yes, we were receiving many questions about, well, can I get HIV through food? What happens if a chef cuts their finger in the kitchen? I mean, the answer is absolutely not. There is no way to contract HIV through the preparation of food. And if a chef did cut themselves during the preparation of a meal we would treat it just like we would anybody whether they were HIV-positive or not. You know, you obviously apply first aid, you sanitize the area, you throw out any food that may have had blood on it. And also, the virus has a very limited lifespan outside of the body, and with the heat and the light within a kitchen environment the virus would not survive.

HU: Joanne, worldwide there are still more than 30 million people living with HIV/AIDS, including more than a million here in the U.S. How have things changed when it comes to stigmas and understanding of the disease since it first came to light in the 1980s?

SIMONS: Well, because the treatment and medication support over the past decade has become a lot more effective, people can live well with this disease and live into, you know, very ripe old age. But I think that there is - there's still a lot of myth, and education is required. So unfortunately for our clients, who are some of the most vulnerable in the community, they experience stigma on a day-to-day basis from their friends, family, co-workers, their health care professionals. So it's still a very real issue.

HU: Because you believe that there is so much myth-busting and stigma-busting that's still needed, will you expand this pop-up concept?

SIMONS: So certainly we will make sure it happens again in Toronto. But because we've had interest globally, we are starting to work on a plan to roll it out elsewhere. So fingers crossed, you'll be able to taste our food soon.

HU: So finally, tell us about the food. What did you serve that stood out?

SIMONS: It was absolutely brilliant. So the first course was northern Thai leek and potato soup with a hint of curry. It was just delicious. The second course that I really enjoyed as well was a pasta with smoked arctic char followed by garlic rapini and flank steak, and then a boozy tiramisu to finish off. So I don't know that I could pick my favorite of the four dishes. It was all quite delicious.

HU: It sure sounds like it. That's Joanne Simons. She's the CEO of Casey House, a hospital for people with HIV/AIDS in Toronto. Joanne, thanks for joining us.

SIMONS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.