This Banker Turned Chef Wants You To Have Fun With Food

She adds playful touches to your comfort food favorites.

Taho cheesecake, wagyu sticks, and a clam chowder topped with crispy kangkong.

These are some of the dishes on the menu at ABKD in Poblacion. And while the menu has been updated to keep up with the Poblacion crowd, it's undeniable that Lica Ibarra, ABKD's chef and co-owner, is unafraid to try new things.

Her food and cooking obsession started at a very young age. "I liked eating anything that's in front of me. I was very adventurous as a child. Every time I see something interesting, I would tell my mom I wanted to try it even though she knows I wouldn't like it. I would always insist to try it before I tell whether I liked it or not."

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Lica Ibarra of ABKD in Poblacion was one of the Filipino finalists of MasterChef Asia in 2015. "Up to now, it's hard to explain the exact feeling I had when I stepped in the kitchen of MasterChef Asia."
Photo by Mark Jesalva

Like most children, Lica favored desserts. Armed with a Mrs. Field cookbook, she tried a cookie recipe from the cookbook when she was young. "I still make those cookies, although I don't know how many times I've changed the recipe. I probably changed it more than ten times," she recalls fondly.

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"One morning I woke up, I asked myself, 'what am I doing still here in the bank? I already know what I want to do.' "
Photo by Mark Jesalva

Lica says she grew up in the kitchen. "I would always be in the kitchen with my mom and my grandmother while they prepared food for dinner parties so I would like to think that I grew up in the kitchen at a young age."

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She pursued a banking career after college but admitted that "MasterChef was a dream for me ever since I watched the show. I would always imagine myself being a finalist in that show." An audition video, a live audition, and a callback later, Lica flew to Singapore for MasterChef Asia in 2015. She was the last Filipino standing, finishing ninth out of the 15 aspiring home cooks in the show.

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"They don't know Philippine cuisine as well as the other Asian cuisines. I don't think they know how flavorful and how good our cuisine is, how good Filipino food tastes like."

She shares, "One episode that really changed me, it's sort of my favorite. It's the episode where I made sinigang na salmon sa miso. And I served it to the judges and they were blown away by the flavors in the dish. At that moment, I realized a lot of foreigners especially foreign chefs, a lot of them don't know Filipino flavors. They don't know Philippine cuisine as well as the other Asian cuisines. I don't think they know how flavorful and how good our cuisine is, how good Filipino food tastes like."

Lica came back to the Philippines after the two-month shoot for MasterChef. "Funny thing is, after the show when I got back to the Philippines, I think everyone thought I would pursue culinary. But I still had my corporate job, I used to work in a bank.

When I got back, I still had my job thankfully, and I was still in a bank for about a little over 6 months, close to a year. One morning I woke up, I asked myself, 'What am I doing still here in the bank? I already know what I want to do.' So that morning, I woke up, I wrote my resignation letter and sent it to my boss."

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The kimchi udon is one of the bestsellers at ABKD in Poblacion.
Photo by Mark Jesalva
The corn tempura balls are some of the affordable delicious eats in ABKD.
Photo by Mark Jesalva
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"ABKD is sort of like your neighbor offering you food."
Photo by Mark Jesalva

Her latest food adventure includes ABKD in Poblacion, which Lica describes as "something comforting, a comfort ground, something homey. ABKD is sort of like your neighbor offering you food." Lica admits the Poblacion crowd is different ("Here in Poblacion, you're surrounded by bars and a lot of people go out, come here really to drink, to have a few drinks, eat or have dinner, and then eat, and then eat again.") but it allows her to be creative and still have fun with food. ABKD'S current menu has playful touches to comfort food and it's easy to find one that will be a favorite.

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She recalls her MasterChef experience as a surreal one and it also fuels her food adventures every day. "The moment I stepped in the MasterChef kitchen, that was like a dream come true. Up to now, it's hard to explain the exact feeling I had when I stepped in the kitchen of MasterChef Asia.

After that, I told myself I had to pursue my passion. I've gone this far already, I know what I want to do, I know what I love to do. It was a leap of faith, really. It wasn't easy but very rewarding."

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