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.
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.