Q&A With Phil Ibrahim Of Li Pu Pop-Ups

Photo By Tony Valainis

While his parents are both Indonesian, with Chinese heritage, soft-spoken but passionate chef Phil Ibrahim grew up in the Taiwanese neighborhood of Los Angeles until his father, who was the branch manager for a shipping company, brought Phil and his family to the Westfield area in 2006. But Ibrahim, who started out helping his mother with catering gigs when he was a boy, would eventually make it to Indonesia for high school and a degree at Ottimmo International Mastergourmet Academy in Surabaya, East Java, in 2015. Jobs in fine-dining restaurants and hotels laid a foundation for his cooking experience, but Ibrahim’s true love is with communal family meals and food-stall dishes, the rich story of which lies at the heart of Li Pu, his series of dinner pop-ups that he’s held at Fishers Test Kitchen and other venues. Here, he talks his culinary beginnings, his love of music, and his passion for bold flavors and signature business brands.

What was the inspiration behind the name of your pop-up series, Li Pu?

It’s actually my name in Chinese, a name that has its roots in royalty. It translates as “excessive” or “beyond reasonable limits,” which is interesting, because I’m a very minimalistic person. But it’s a nice metaphor for my dinners, which are very tight platings of flavor-packed dishes that tell a narrative of my personal history and travels, or really anyone’s journey who might visit Asia.

Food was a big part of your childhood?

Absolutely. I grew up in the kitchen basically. My mother had a catering gig in L.A. in the late ’90s, basically a forerunner of Indonesian cooking in Southern California. But it was tough work, and she’d have to be up at 2 or 3 in the morning. But I asked her if I could help. For me, it was more than just working with my mother. I had a passion to cook. I learned from an early age that food is a story. Instead of pushing me into more prestigious careers, my mother was great about fostering a love of food in me. She bought me books, and I loved celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and culinary competition shows like Iron Chef. You didn’t really see a lot of Asian chefs on TV, so that was inspiring.

So food was just a natural fit for a career?

When I headed off for college, I just knew that I was already good at it, and I did have a passion for it. I didn’t really have a backup plan. And my parents told me that it was a respectable trade because I was passing on the culture of my people. They just told me that as long as I was happy and fully committed to it that I should go for it. Going to culinary school in Indonesia was great because I got to cook really every nation’s culinary heritage. It wasn’t just Southeast Asian food. But it wasn’t always easy. I hated baking and pastry, and I wasn’t really very good at. Baking is a lot more like mathematics. Cooking is more based in the emotions, which fit my personality more. Culinary school led me to a series of great places in Asia and back in L.A.

With all of your restaurant and hotel experience, you’re focusing on private dinners and pop-ups now. What do you like about that format?

I love what I’m doing right now. I love that I’m not restrained by a menu that I have to work with for weeks at a time. I do love the typical seasonal changes of restaurant menus, but for pop-ups you can radically change a menu for each dinner and won’t be bored. Not so secretly, I want to be a concept director. I want to help restaurants with their image or places that are struggling in the mundane. I feel like I did that at 1914, a fusion French-Japanese steakhouse in Surabaya that wasn’t quite reaching its full potential. And to a certain extent with Mesh and Modita, trying to help develop the menu to push the Indianapolis palate and lend a bit more of an L.A. flair. One of the most colorful places was Katsuya, a high-end sushi spot. It was part of the larger SBE restaurant group. I helped with a New Year’s event for Snapchat that hosted like 4,000-plus A-listers. A few of them were singers, rappers. Everyone had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. We were basically serving what you would see at the best food stalls in Japan.

What’s the essence of Indonesian cuisine?

There are so many great flavors to the food, but there are some things that make it very special. It’s similar to Malaysian food in terms of flavors. When Saraga opened here in Indy, we really tried to push them to get more Indonesian products. There are some great curries, and a lot of traditional wok cooking. There’s a lot of Chinese influence with all of the immigration in the 1800s. Indonesia has its “trinity” of shallots, garlic, and lemongrass. Javanese fried rice is one of my favorite dishes. It’s basically the same as in other Asian countries, but it’s best when cooked open-flame, with lots of garlic and shallots, with the real kiss of the fire. Satay is also one of the great streets foods, mainly made with chicken since it’s an Islamic country. The type of charcoal, the use of sweet soy sauce, and the peanut sauce are all signatures of the dish. There was one place next to my house in Indonesia that specialized in satay, and I hope to God that they open again. They wouldn’t tell me their recipe, but it was great.

What are some of your hobbies when you’re not cooking?

One of the things I’m getting into is foraging, looking around for what I can find near my home. Wild mint, wild carrots, and mushrooms are all things I’ve been finding, which is fun. I’m also big into music, and I’m currently learning guitar and bass guitar. I’ve dabbled with woodwinds, drums, and piano as well. I really love bands like FKJ [French Kiwi Juice], Leon Bridges, and Daniel Caesar. R&B and anything with poolside vibes. But the music is strictly for me. For now, I really want to focus on the food. I’m also an avid gamer and get into some online tournaments. League of Legends is a favorite of mine.

What do you want to tell people in Indianapolis about the true Asian food experience?

In Asia and for my Indonesian family, food isn’t just what you eat. It’s very cultural. Food is communal, something the whole family gathers around the table for. You share the story of your family. Even if it’s a bit plain at times, it’s substantial. Basically, it’s like Thanksgiving Day every day. Everyone is saying “Can you pass this? Can you pass that?” And mothers are always putting something on your plate.