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Smash the HIV/AIDS Stigma by Eating at this Toronto Pop-Up

Toronto’s latest hot ticket pop-up restaurant is a “positive” one.

Lead by well-known chef Matt Basile (Fidel Gastro, Lisa Marie), June’s HIV+ Eatery will take over the real estate at 1090 Queen St. West for a delicious two nights – Tuesday, November 7 and Wednesday, November 8 – of eating, drinking and stigma-smashing.

What makes this experience unique is that Basile’s team of 14 consists entirely of HIV-positive cooks – and it’s the first of its kind. Chef Basile will train the chefs and has worked with them to develop the menu. Guests can expect a northern Thai potato leek soup, Arctic char and pea pappardelle and gingerbread tiramisu with burnt meringue.

The initiative is part of the Break Bread Smash Stigma campaign launched by Toronto’s Casey House – Canada’s only stand-alone hospital dedicated to caring for those living with HIV/AIDS – and is designed to fight the lingering stigma associated with the disease.

At a time when HIV/AIDS no longer dominates headlines and conversations the way it did in the past, it remains as important of a topic as ever. In fact, 2-3 Ontarians are diagnosed with HIV every day. There are currently more Canadians living with HIV/AIDS than ever before, likely due to the fact that infected individuals are living longer lives (meaning an increased need for services). Furthermore, HIV rates are on the rise among women (we’ve moved long past the belief that it is a “gay man’s disease”).

Just today, the Chicago Tribune posted an article that states that experts warn that HIV/AIDS could be poised for a comeback, thanks to the disconcerting global rise in resistance to antiretroviral (ART) medications. So, yeah, it’s still a huge topic.

Despite relentless education and awareness campaigns, the stigma persists. A Leger Research Intelligence Group survey conducted for Casey House found that only half of Canadians would eat food if they knew someone who was HIV-positive made it. The reality is, of course, that the disease can’t be spread through food preparation (or through sharing food, kissing or hugging, for that matter).

Surprisingly (and sadly), millennials were among the largest group to report stigmas. The study found that 79 per cent of millennials agree that if tested HIV-positive, they would be nervous or ashamed to share the health news openly.

“The stigma around HIV and AIDS is still very real, isolating many patients across the city, the country and the globe,” said Kenneth Poon, Casey House client. “I stand proud to be part of this powerful group of 14 HIV positive chefs to boldly break barriers and end the isolation that I have felt and others continue to feel. Through the compassionate care that I received at Casey House, I made it through those darkest days and I am here today, helping others who are living with HIV/AIDS.”

Casey House recently announced a $38-million state-of-the-art expansion that will see the facility double its capacity and therefore its ability to care for 650 people from 300. The pop-up prep will take place in a launch pantry for the new building.

“Casey House is more than a place that saves lives, we are a place that shines understanding through compassion, and empower our clients to get better,” said Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House. “We make our clients’ humanity more visible than their disease.”

Tickets for June’s are available online for $125 per person.

Erin Davis

Erin is a Toronto-based actor, writer and queen of the side hustle. When she’s not writing the day away in a face mask, she’s taking in the city’s vibrant arts scene, doing a red carpet interview or brunching with her leading ladies. Follow me: @erinnicoledavis