Breaking bread to smash stigma: Pop-up eatery to employ HIV-positive chefs

Organizers behind a pop-up restaurant coming to Toronto next month hope that by giving patrons the chance to break bread with HIV-positive chefs, they can smash the stigma that persists around the disease.

June's will open on Nov. 7 and 8 to benefit Casey House, Canada's only dedicated hospital for HIV patients

Muluba Habanyama is one of 14 people who will prepare and serve food at June's next month. (Matt Barnes/Casey House)

Organizers behind a pop-up restaurant coming to Toronto next month hope that by giving patrons the chance to break bread with HIV-positive chefs, they can smash the stigma that persists around the disease.

Casey House, Canada's only stand-alone hospital dedicated to people with HIV/AIDS, will open June's, a restaurant where a team of HIV-positive cooks will be on food-prep duty. It's named for Casey House founder June Callwood.

The restaurant will be open for two nights, Nov. 7 and 8, under the guidance of chef Matt Basile of Fidel Gastro's.

Chef Matt Basile of Fidel Gastro's will train and lead the team of chefs at next month's pop-up. (Matt Barnes/Casey House)

Muluba Habanyama will be one of the 14 chefs working alongside Basile. She was born with HIV, which was transmitted to her from her mother. She says HIV was discussed in her home as she grew up and had to learn why she was taking medication.

But her HIV status, as well as that of her parents, was hidden from the broader community due to the stigma around the disease, she says.

"It definitely affected the way I thought about myself because it was something that was a big secret in the family," Habanyama told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Thursday.

"It was something that we didn't tell other people because we knew about the stigma, and when you told one person the next day a whole group of people would know."

Growing up she felt burdened by a "hidden secret." She feared attending sleepover parties because her friends would find out about her illness if she stepped away to take her medicine.

"So I always had this fear and this loneliness," she said. When both her parents died of the virus, "it was even more devastating."

'There's a lot of fear'

While the pop-up restaurant is aimed at smashing that stigma around HIV, a recent survey conducted by Casey House suggests there's much work to be done.

The poll found that only half of Canadians would share food with or eat food prepared by someone who is HIV-positive. And a full 70 per cent of respondents said they would be ashamed to admit their status openly if they were diagnosed with the virus.

Francisco Ibanez-Carrasco will be working the kitchen at June's next month. (Matt Barnes/Casey House)

Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House, said Thursday while the numbers are "absolutely staggering," staff were not surprised. When the AIDS crisis hit 30 years ago, an HIV diagnosis amounted to a death sentence, she said.

"That notion still lingers," she told Metro Morning. "I think there's a lot of fear and misunderstanding and lack of education around this disease."

People, she said, "are afraid because they don't understand.

"I think they are truly afraid that if you touch, if you share a meal, that there's a possibility that you could contract HIV. I think that it is very misguided."

'Very important health crisis'

On average, seven people are diagnosed with HIV every day in Canada. Half of them live in Ontario and two-thirds live in Toronto, according to Simons. Those who have access to treatment and a supportive family environment, "they can live a very long and good life," she said.

But Casey House clients are among the 40 per cent of patients who are not on treatment, and many are dealing with homelessness, substance abuse or mental health issues.

"So this is still a very important health crisis that we need to be talking about," Simons said.

She hopes that next month's event helps get people talking even if they can't enjoy a meal at June's.

Muluba Habanyama speaks to Metro Morning about smashing the stigma of HIV/AIDS. (CBC)

"I hope that it's going to create conversation and dialogue about HIV and really start to smash the stigma around the disease," Simons said.

"Sharing food and breaking bread is a way that we share compassion and we show love for our fellow man."

For Habanyama, she hopes the pop-up helps others develop compassion for those living with HIV.

"I'd want them to know that we're just like all of them," she said. "We want that compassion, we want that help."