For nearly 40 years, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has spread throughout many pockets of human society, leading to around 35 million deaths around the world, according to the World Health Organization. It was first observed in humans in the year 1981, and since then has claimed many high-profile lives, such as the pianist Liberace or Queen frontman Eddie Mercury.
In recent years, large strides have been made in successfully treating the disease, and while contracting the disease was as good as a death sentence a few decades ago, people who live with HIV can live long and fulfilling lives, with 2016 seeing 36 million people live with HIV and only a million of those losing their lives to the disease.
HIV is very much a different beast in the year 2017, but despite those advancements in medicine, there’s still quite a large stigma around the disease. It’s a sad situation, but it’s one that a pop-up restaurant out in Canada aimed to tackle heads-on.
Welcome to June’s. Based in Toronto, Canada; at first glance, it just seems like your average pop-up restaurant. If you were to finish your well-enjoyed meal and make your way to the kitchen to compliment the chef, you might notice him or her wearing an apron with the words “Kiss the HIV+ cook”, or “I got HIV from pasta. Said no one ever”.
Yes: had you eaten at June’s, which opened between November 6 and November 8, you would have had a meal prepared by somebody who is HIV-positive.
Don’t worry, you’re not infected; HIV can only be transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, breastmilk or semen, and provided you didn’t congratulate your chef by breastfeeding her, you should be fine. It’s amazing how many people don’t know that, however, and June’s aims to challenge some of those stigmas.
“We really wanted to be able to challenge the stigma that still exists around HIV,” says Joanne Simons, who is from Casey House, the only standalone hospital in Canada that houses only people living with HIV or AIDS. Casey House are the organization that helped June’s to open, and it represented an opportunity to change perceptions around the disease.
Simons noted that there was a fair amount of social media backlash when June’s was launched, and one of the biggest questions from the confused public revolved around what happened if someone were to cut themselves while in the kitchen. Simons explained that the procedure for that eventuality was similar to if the chef wasn’t HIV-positive: that is, don’t bleed into the customer’s food.
“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.”
With 14 HIV-positive chefs in total, each one cooked two four-course dinners for more than 100 hungry customers in Toronto, and although very few of them had set foot in a kitchen before, they all came out a little more equipped in a kitchen, and a lot more confident about their own abilities.
It might be easy to turn your nose up at the idea of someone with HIV handling your food, but the honest truth is that there’s no chance of spreading infection, and looking at some of the food on offer, you’re probably missing out.