This corporate lawyer gained 2.3 million TikTok followers in the last year, “veganizing” Korean recipes

Joanne Molinaro, aka “The Korean Vegan,” has had quite a year on social media. Most of her lawyer colleagues have no idea about her second life.

Joanne Molinaro has spent decades working in bankruptcy and antitrust matters at the same Chicago firm that hired her right out of law school. In 2018, she felt blessed to land a book deal about her experiences growing up Korean-American, with an emphasis on food and a handful of recipes. But last year her life was completely upended (possibly even more than the rest of ours were) after the 41-year-old lawyer launched a TikTok account, centered on “veganizing” Korean food–in just one year, Molinaro gained a stunning 2.3 million followers. 

I was drawn to the law out of anxiety, honestly. I graduated from college a year early with an English degree, and I was so unprepared. As soon as I left college, I felt this immense pressure to get a job. Like be an adult, you know, instead of kind of taking some time to figure out what I want to do or go right to grad school.

Joanne Molinaro buttering a muffin. June 2021

Courtesy of Joanne Molinaro

In July 2020, Molinaro started her TikTok account and gained 2.3 million TikTok followers in the last year, “veganizing” traditional Korean recipes and other vegan dishes.

Indirectly, the pressure was from my parents–I’m always trying to please them–but directly, it was me. I was so afraid of being an adult and having financial things to worry about; all I cared about was having a steady job. And having what others deemed a successful career. 

I couldn’t be a doctor; I can’t stand the sight of blood. So medicine was out, and I hate selling things, so I couldn’t do anything in business. So out of my three well-paying options, medicine, business MBA or law school, the other two were eliminated. Law school was literally prompted by fear, not, ‘Oh I want to change the world’ or something.

Throughout my life, food was always a big focus. In a general sense, I think it means something a little different for immigrants. When I left home for college, I hadn’t realized how reliant I was on my family for feeling safe and secure. Korean food became a stand-in for my family when I was away. It was something that symbolized safety and warmth. 

Going vegan started about five years ago with my husband (boyfriend at the time). He read a book called Finding Ultra by Rich Roll, and it inspired him to change his eating habits. He’s a runner, and it was mostly for health reasons. I didn’t want to go vegan! I thought he was crazy; I was doing Paleo at the time so it was exactly the opposite. 

There was a lot of tension; we almost broke up over it. I felt kind of like, okay, white boy, it is easy for you to go vegan, but for me like you’re asking me to give up my fucking heritage and my culture–it’s not that simple! Replace all the things I grew up eating and with kale and quinoa? I’m not going to do that. It wasn’t fair to Anthony, but it’s how I felt.

I hadn’t realized how reliant I was on my family for feeling safe and secure. Korean food became a stand-in for my family when I was away.

So many of my memories of Korean food involve meat. My uncle manning the grill, my dad pounding the short ribs, my mom marinating it, my grandma painstakingly taking all the bones out of the fish or the crab meat out of the crab for me and my brother. I have so many memories because, you know, meat to my family represented survival. Eating meat felt like, ‘Oh my god we made it.’ 

I started the Korean Vegan, ironically at Anthony’s suggestion. After I started veganizing Korean food and pastas and chocolate cake, he was so impressed. He was like, ‘You should start a YouTube channel.’ Literally that night, I came up with an Instagram and YouTube account and just started posting shit like, I made this kimchi pizza or I made this plant thing that reminds me of bulgogi.

Before that, my social media experience had mostly been a Tumblr account where I wrote poetry. This was new–when you post something and it gets 15 likes, that rush is very addictive. It’s one of the cool and also dangerous things about social media. Through Snapchat I soon met a couple of big food bloggers, and they helped me propel the Korean Vegan to a moderate following. In April of that same year, I decided to launch Koreanvegan.com. It was the first time in my life where I started to even have a tiny little inkling that I could do something other than be a lawyer.

I don’t think Korean people wanted anything to do with my account at first. It was the same negative reaction that I had when my boyfriend was like ‘Hey, do you want to go vegan?’ But I think there were a lot of white people who wanted to try Korean food and this one happened to be vegan.

November 2016 was one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life. If you remember the beginning after Trump was elected, a lot of polarization was around the wall, keeping out all those immigrants. I wanted to humanize the immigration story so that maybe people who were at least on the fence about some of this stuff could remember there are humans behind this policy. In 2017 I wrote my first caption that wasn’t just, ‘Here’s the recipe for my raw blueberry tart.’ It was a story about my mom or dad about me growing up being Korean; it wasn’t dealing with food issues or anything. I think that’s when I think people started seeing the Korean Vegan as more than just a recipe Instagram.

I don’t think Korean people wanted anything to do with my account at first.

My book deal came in 2018. I had maybe 37,000 followers at that time. Then, in July of 2020, I started using TikTok because I wanted to be more politically engaged. I was going to post like, smarmy, rage-infested posts about Donald Trump. Then I started seeing some food content, and I thought, I could do that! It was honestly really ugly at first. I literally propped my phone up against the wall while I was chopping potatoes. My husband’s giving a piano lesson in the background; you can hear his voice and the piano. I don’t have any voice in there; I’m just throwing some potatoes in the pan. All of a sudden I’m getting a million views on a disgusting potato video that had horrible lighting and no composition. I was like, ‘Oh my god you’ve got to do this every single day.’

TikTok is definitely my main gig now, there’s no question. But there are certain things that I do not compromise. I don’t compromise my job with the law and I don’t compromise my running. Those things are absolutely non-negotiable. They take up the first parts of my day; whatever time I have left over I devote to social media. Luckily my husband understands my hierarchy of priorities. 

I don’t think most of my co-workers know about my second life as Korean Vegan. They’re all very busy professionals doing their own thing. My close friends at work, they all know and are super-proud, but the overwhelming majority of people don’t really know much about it. I got an email the other day from a partner who’d seen my CNBC interview and she said, ‘Dude you should just quit this law thing and just go straight to Hollywood. I was like, ‘I don’t think that’s how it works.’

It’s crazy though, how fast my life has changed. Patricia Arquette tweeted me; she is one of my favorite actresses. Chrissy Teigan, too. Even just the fact that there are 2.3 million people on TikTok who follow me is insane. I started that account less than a year ago. I was walking my dog the other day, and somebody was like, ‘Excuse me, excuse me: Are you the Korean Vegan?’

I am very loyal to my law firm, because they’ve done such an amazing job of nurturing me and investing in me. But I also love what I do with the Korean Vegan. There will come a time where I feel like I can’t do both. I don’t know when, but it probably will happen. So it’s certainly something to think about. I will say in the past seven months, this has turned into something that I never dreamed or imagined. My life now is unbelievable.

Joanne Molinaro started her blog, The Korean Vegan, in 2016, after adopting a plant-based diet. In July 2020, she started her TikTok (@thekoreanvegan), mostly as a coping mechanism for the isolation caused by the global pandemic.

Jesse Hirsch is The Counter's managing editor. Before he joined the team, he was an investigative food editor at Consumer Reports. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, VICE, Eater, and The Guardian.