All photos courtesy of Bensimon Byrne.

HIV-Positive Chefs Team Up to End Stigma

A recent survey suggests half of Canadians wouldn't eat food prepared by a HIV-positive individual. June's Eatery wants to change that.

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Nov 8 2017, 9:00pm

All photos courtesy of Bensimon Byrne.

Guy Bethell had never thought of pursuing cooking as more than a hobby. He couldn't keep up with his brother, who's a cook by training.

"I keep my cooking fairly simple," Bethell explains to me. "Stews and soups. My brother is a chef, so I'm spoiled."

Bethell's been rethinking his stance lately. He's found a bit more confidence in the kitchen over the past few days: He's one of the 14 chefs involved in June's Eatery, a two-day pop-up that ends tonight in Toronto. A collaboration between Casey House, Canada's first (and, to date, only) standalone hospital for those living with HIV and AIDS, and ad agencies Bensimon Byrne and Narrative, June's is marketed as Canada's first pop-up restaurant staffed entirely by HIV-positive individuals. They aren't professional chefs; these are hobby cooks who haven't had the chance to participate in the restaurant industry in their day-to-day lives. Tethered to Casey House's 'Break Bread. Smash Stigma.' campaign, the pop-up is hoping to erode the misunderstandings surrounding HIV, one meal at a time.

READ MORE: HIV Discrimination Still Exists in the Restaurant Industry

Bethell's day job is in the provincial government, an industry he's found relatively easy to navigate as a HIV-positive individual. But he's experienced pretty noxious insensitivity in other corners of society—when disclosing his status to new people, for example, has resulted in potential relationships fizzling out. These experiences have roughened his spirit.

Guy Bethell.

"For the longest time, the ignorance frustrated me," Bethell tells me of those who rejected him. "But after a while, the coin dropped, and I understood their behavior as being driven by fear."

The extent of the ignorance, a study from Casey House conducted in October suggested, is quite pervasive. The survey determined that only half of Canadians—or at least of those participating—would "knowingly share or eat food prepared by a chef who is HIV positive," despite the fact that the disease can't be transmitted through food.

"Haters be hating," chef Matt Basile of Toronto's Fidel Gastro's tells me of these results. "And by haters, I mean people who overlook science and education, to allow personal feelings of ignorance to take over. I think any sort of stigma related to HIV is rooted in personal prejudices versus actual evidence."

Basile was tasked with the charge of leading the team of 14 amateur chefs. His job entailed helping them take their ideas from concept to execution, which resulted in a rich, four-course menu of northern Thai potato leek soup; a roasted heirloom salad; and Arctic char pappardelle, plus grilled skirt steak with garlic and chili rapini, and gingerbread tiramisu.

"The response has been outstanding, and we're thrilled that both evenings sold out very quickly," Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House, tells me of June's success. "Sharing a meal with 14 HIV-positive cooks has most certainly created a conversation."

The conversation hasn't exactly been conflict-free. Simons wasn't quite sure that people would even show up, let alone cozy up to such a concept, given the findings of that initial study. Her fears were confirmed by some caustic responses from members of the public. "Comments on social media have really highlighted the misunderstanding of this disease," she says. "When negative comments do pop up, though, [our] response has been quick and swift with education."

The pop-up has certainly met its directive of creating a sanctuary for individuals who've longed to find an environment free of the suffocating prejudice they find elsewhere in their lives. "Food is the greatest expression of love," Mikiki, another one of the participating chefs, explains. "I would literally cook for and feed the people that I care about all day long if I could."

Mikiki.

Mikiki is an artist by vocation, and their work has occasionally involved food; they tell me about the Disclosure Cookbook, a collaboration with artist Jordan Arseneault that took the form of a community art project blending discussion about living with HIV, disclosure issues, and cooking. But the exercise of participating in June's has been liberating in ways that their art hasn't always been.

"Even though the artistic community has been one of the hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic historically, there is a lot of stigma within it," Mikiki explains. "Identity and issue-based art often see a sidelined audience. You feel like you’re speaking to the converted minority, and not a more generalized audience." In participating in June’s, Mikiki hopes the public dialogue the restaurant has sparked will eventually create a space for mainstream audiences to consider more socially-conscious, engaged art.

They've thought of pursuing cooking as more than a hobby at some points, but the perceived shame of living with HIV dashed those dreams. June's, Mikiki tells me, has amplified their courage as an artist and activist by spotlighting their passion for cooking in public for a large audience, allowing them to get their feet wet in the entrepreneurial and managerial aspects of running a business. They're now able to entertain the very desires they'd taught themselves to suppress.

"The stigma of living with HIV has diminished my feelings of self-efficacy," Mikiki says. "This experience has really motivated me to dream even bigger than before HIV."

This story was updated on November 10, 2017 to include additional information provided by Mikiki.