June’s, a unique pop-up restaurant in Toronto, Canada is the world’s first eatery where all of the kitchen staff are HIV positive.
The idea of the restaurant was born out of a recent poll that suggested only half of Canadians would knowingly share or eat food prepared by someone who is HIV positive.
According to Joanne Simons of Casey House, Canada’s first and only standalone hospital for people living with HIV/Aids, the idea was to “challenge the stigma that still exists around HIV” and also an invaluable opportunity to publicly address some of the myths that persist today around the disease.
“I think that there’s still this lingering notion that if I have regular human contact with somebody with HIV, I may contract it – and it is still a death sentence,” Simons said.
After the after the pop-up restaurant was launched there were a lot of questions about what happens if somebody cuts themselves in the kitchen and they’re HIV positive and the risk of transmission, but Simons explains:
“We manage that like anybody would in a kitchen: you make sure you provide first aid, you clean up the area, you throw away whatever has been touched by the blood and you clean the surfaces. We would do that regardless of whether you have HIV or not – that’s just common sense.
“There’s absolutely no risk that somebody can contract HIV from sharing a meal. HIV doesn’t live well out of the body for any length of time and through the cooking, the virus dies.”
After its launch, the restaurant which already has more than 100 patrons, recruited a 14-person team for the kitchen who spent hours with the Toronto chef Matt Basile to design a menu. As they geared up to prepare dishes that ranged from a northern Thai potato leek soup and Arctic char pappardelle, Basile trained them in food preparation.
Muluba Habanyama, a cook who lost both her parents to the disease, wondered what her parents would have thought of the restaurant.
“I know that if they were alive and seeing this it would have been unreal to them. Growing up, I knew I was positive, but I also knew it was a secret you kept within the family,” the 24-year-old said.
As a child she fretted during sleepovers that the other kids would spot her taking medications – and experienced first-hand how perceptions shifted when she revealed her secret, the Guardian reports.
“A mentor of mine made me eat off paper plates and paper cups while her and her husband ate off glass plates and glasses. I was about seven years old … It hurt me a lot.”
She spiralled into depression at the age of 19 after losing her second parent to the disease.
“Me and my sister had to plan [my mother’s] funeral. And people would come and ask what happened. And we would make up stories.
“So I didn’t really get to grieve properly because I was making up lies and stories and couldn’t really tell my friends and extended family what really was going on,” Habanyama said.
The experience eventually pushed her to openly acknowledge her status in 2014.
“I just know that I never want to go into that darkness again. But I still get very nervous about it because you don’t know how that’s going to change the mood or change the environment. You don’t want to just be the girl with HIV,” she said.
The story is no different for 52-year-old Trevor Stratton, who was diagnosed 27 years ago and has been HIV positive for more than half of his life.
“Try and get a date when you’re HIV positive. I always disclose, even on dating apps online. People don’t want to talk to you – the first thing they’ll say is ‘how did you get it?’” he said.
Stratton, whose mother is an indigenous Canadian, has for years worked to raise awareness and combat HIV/Aids among Aboriginal populations in Canada.
“We have more than twice the national average in terms of HIV incidence. In the province of Saskatchewan, infection rates in recent years have mirrored those of some developing countries.
“Most of those people are indigenous people and most of them are getting HIV through injection drug use. Which is tied to trauma, residential school system and that whole history we have in Canada,” said Stratton.
He pointed to the stigma that already burdens those diagnosed with HIV. “And then if you’re indigenous or maybe African, Caribbean or black, there’s many layers, intersections of stigma and discrimination.”
Stratton had jumped at the chance to participate as a cook in this week’s restaurant, describing it as crucial chance to highlight an issue that has been largely overlooked in recent years.
“We need help, we need allies, we need to be recognised as a key affected population. We’re invisible. And that’s our work – to try and get us on the map,” he said.