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Cam Brenson begins his popular TikTok videos with some variation of this phrase: “I am eating the food of every country in the world all near Chicago.”
It’s a fairly simple phrase, and a pretty big goal. The United Nations recognizes 193 sovereign states, plus two observer states in Vatican City and Palestine, and two non-member states in the Cook Islands and Niue. That means Brenson is aiming to taste the cuisine of 197 countries in Chicago.
Not all nations are represented here, but Brenson, a 30-year-old Chicagoan who works in sales for a tech company, is using his spare time to travel the world through the city’s restaurant scene. It all started back in 2019, when Brenson was, frankly, bored.
“I knew I was in this awesome city. I knew there were a ton of awesome things to do here, but then I couldn’t easily find it,” he says.
Most of his online searches yielded results designed more for tourists. So he started a website, as well as Instagram and TikTok accounts called Bored in Chicago, where he compiled a list of interesting things to do in the city geared more towards locals. Brenson also stumbled upon a YouTube series in which a creator is trying the national dish from every country in the world, and that inspired him to start his own journey.
“I went to [an Afghan restaurant] in January of this year and I got some great food there, made a video, and posted it not knowing what the traction would be, but it did really well. People were really into the idea,” Brenson says. “From that point forward, I was like, alright, I guess I’ve got 196 more countries to go to now!”
So far, Brenson has been to restaurants representing the cuisine of some 40 countries, and he anticipates that it will take him a couple of years to finish the list. He’s had to skip about 15 countries so far, as one of the biggest challenges of his endeavor is finding restaurants representing smaller nations, such as Antigua and Barbuda, or even larger countries like Angola that do not have a large population in Chicago. As Brenson points out, not only would someone from a particular country have to move to Chicago, but they would also have to open up a restaurant, and keep that restaurant open in a tough industry. So while it’s a challenge, it’s not necessarily a surprising one.
“What would be really cool, but a big ask, is if there’s someone who’s from one of these countries in Chicago that I could meet up with, and we could cook together,” Brenson says.
Still, he keeps going down the list as best he can in alphabetical order, occasionally circling back to ones he had to skip. Recently, he visited the Dominican Republic via Tropical Taste in Humboldt Park (one he had to return to, since it was temporarily closed), where he had their desayuno Dominicano, with creamy and savory mashed plantains, fried eggs, queso frito, and a crispy breakfast salami he loved.
Eating the food of every country in the world, all near Chicago – Dominican Republic
♬ What A Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
“I grew up eating a classic American breakfast sausage, and the salami blows that out of the water,” he says. “It has much more smokiness and a spice to it.”
Soon, he’ll be tackling the I’s—Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Ireland, Italy, and others—which he anticipates will be a varied batch. Brenson has a lot of fun with the cuisines that are more easily found, such as Chinese, Mexican, or Indian food, by pushing himself to try something he’s never eaten before.
There are other challenges in accomplishing his goal, too. Looking down his list, he faces one interesting question: What will he do for the food of the United States?
“I’ll either basically do the same thing [as other commonly-found countries] where it’s trying to find a type of food that I’ve never had before, or that I’m very surprised is in Chicago,” he says.
Brenson has found the experience to be eye-opening so far, with the added bonus that he and his wife no longer struggle to look for a place to go out to eat. All he has to do is pull out his list. At the restaurants he’s visited this year, there have been a few stand-outs. He particularly loved Khmai Fine Dining, a Cambodian restaurant in Rogers Park, as well as Don Pablo’s, a Chilean restaurant in Uptown.
He’s also been surprised at some of the responses to his TikTok videos, particularly people’s passion for the cuisine of their home countries. Sometimes, his videos reach the country he’s profiling. One of his videos inadvertently started an international debate over a Bulgarian salad called a shopska salad.
“There were all these Bulgarians in the comments, and also people from North Macedonia fighting over who owns the salad, because unbeknownst to me, North Macedonians feel they have a claim to it as well, and that it’s actually a Macedonian dish.”
Despite his ongoing culinary adventure, Brenson says he’s not a natural-born foodie. But he isn’t picky, either.
“I would not say that I have a great palate,” he says. “But I’m very happy with pretty much anything. I don’t have any food I don’t like.”
His main advice to people wanting to trace his footsteps through Chicago’s global cuisine? Keep an open mind, and don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone. His series has taken him to parts of Chicago and the surrounding areas that he had never been to, and he has eaten dishes he never thought he’d try—including a tripe soup, made from the lining of the stomach of a cow.
“I’m a firm believer that humans are very rational and very logical, and there’s a reason why we do certain things,” Brenson says. “If a culture eats a certain type of food, there’s probably a very good reason for it. And that reason is probably that it tastes really good.”