Q&A: Fidel Gastro’s chef Matt Basile on training an all-volunteer kitchen to run June’s HIV+ Eatery
For two nights this week, Toronto’s Casey House is creating a pop-up restaurant at Queen and Dovercourt called June’s HIV+ Eatery, where all of the cooks are HIV-positive. Named for the late social activist and Casey House founder, June Callwood, the sold-out event (it’s tonight and Wednesday) is about serving delicious food—hold the stigma. Chef Matt Basile, from Fidel Gastro’s and Lisa Marie, signed on to helm the kitchen and train the all-volunteer staff. Here, he talks about the the importance of the project in light of persistent misinformation surrounding HIV.
Can you tell us a little bit about the project and how it came about?
The project is in association with Casey House, which is a medical facility for people with HIV and AIDS. But the other part of their mandate is to educate and combat stigma. The idea for a pop-up restaurant came in response to a survey Casey House conducted that found that half of Canadians wouldn’t eat a meal if they knew it was prepared by someone who is HIV-positive. I was so surprised by that. Even though it’s 2017, there are people who are still under the impression that they can contract HIV if someone with the virus is handling their food. The idea to have clients at Casey House work as chefs was something they came up with, along with the ad agency Bensimon Byrne. And then they came to me.
Why do you think they approached you? Do you have a personal connection to the cause?
I don’t. I’ve done quite a bit of work with CAMH in support of mental health, which has made me aware of things like stigma and the impact words can have, and my business partner comes from a public health background. I don’t even know if Casey House was aware of those things when they approached me. All I can say is that it was an immediate yes on my end. This has been such a rewarding project already. It’s made me pretty emotional to see everyone so excited and energized. I’ve had people from the group pull me aside and ask if we do this every month.
You’re a chef charged with whipping 14 non-professionals into a restaurant-quality kitchen team. What was that like?
I knew what I was getting into from a training perspective. My goal was to make everyone feel comfortable so that this isn’t a stressful experience. When we first met, I just got everyone to throw out flavour profiles, and to share the food they enjoyed. We decided to do the meal family style, which requires a little less plating. Also, I felt that the family-style model lent itself to what this event is about: sharing and promoting conversation.
With an event like this, what does success look like?
Well, we sold all 200 tickets in a week and a half, so that’s amazing. And as long as we’re raising awareness, then we’ll be successful. Maybe we’re not going to convince anyone who feels really strongly about this, but we can help to fight ignorance.
Unlike other workplaces, a kitchen is full of sharp objects. Do you think that’s part of what makes some people nervous?
For sure. That’s actually something I was curious about when I got involved. But if someone who has a cut is mixing your salad, HIV transmission is not possible. You would treat the situation the same way you would when anyone cuts themselves in a restaurant kitchen: you would not serve the food, you would sanitize and clean the station, treat the wound—and that’s pretty much it. It’s not like you need to put on a Hazmat suit.
You are also the host of a new reality cooking show called Menu Match-Up, where blind and partially sighted home cooks are paired up with professional chefs. Are you just the go-to guy for socially valuable cooking projects?
Ha! It’s funny—one of the chefs working on the Casey House project is also blind, so my experience on the show was valuable in being able to work with him. I just thought the show was a super-cool project and an opportunity, so why wouldn’t I want to be involved? I’ve been very lucky in my career over the last few years. The restaurant industry can feel very self-serving, so I like having the opportunity to give back.