CHICAGO — On a warm summer night, I biked to the lakefront home of Joanne Lee Molinaro — better known as the Korean Vegan.

I thought we would whip up a few recipes from her new “Korean Vegan Cookbook” while I got to know her for this profile. But when I arrived on time at 6 p.m. and took off my shoes, I realized all the cooking was already done. Molinaro’s dining room table was covered in linen, silver and picture-perfect dishes of kimchi, ssamjang, a rolled vegan omelet, steamed rice, perilla leaves and galbi (substituting mushrooms for the meat).

Instead of cooking with me, Molinaro wanted to feed me. She wanted to feed me spellbinding tales of love, life and loss while I took bite after bite of her sumptuous food.

“That’s the better way for me,” she explained, sitting across the table in a T-shirt, running shorts and a ponytail. “I mean, that’s kind of my whole thing: eating and talking over food.”

Indeed, this thing has earned her more than 2.7 million TikTok followers in just over a year. And, in the meantime, it’s revolutionized the way people share recipe videos online.

In a TikTok genre she calls “story time videos,” Molinaro pairs gorgeous images of food prep, not with the usual narrated cooking directions, but with stirring voice-overs about immigrant life, broken relationships and childhood trauma.

She unspools a tale of her mother’s near starvation and murder over a video recipe for vegan s’mores. She describes her father’s emotional reticence toward her over footage of black soybean noodles called jajangmyeon. And she tells the story of a seventh-grade crush who used a racial slur to describe her and dumped her after she wouldn’t go to “second base,” all while preparing an arugula, vegan cheese and tomato sandwich.

Over the course of exactly 60 seconds, Molinaro somehow makes you want to laugh, cry, march in the streets and devour every damn thing on her plate.

But to cast Molinaro, 42, as a mere TikTok superstar would be to undersell her — by a lot.

This Chicago-born child of North Korean immigrants served until recently as a partner in a high-powered Chicago law firm. She runs marathons as a hobby. And she has emerged as an outspoken commentator on women’s rights, body image, the immigrant experience and racial justice. Oh, and in the past year, she’s also co-written two opinion pieces for the Atlantic about the legality of petitions made by President Donald Trump’s attorneys.

So how did a super-busy law partner become a vegan icon and social justice champion whose debut cookbook is one of the most anticipated releases of the fall?

“I never in my wildest imagination ever thought that this would be my life,” she says, palming a perilla leaf, layering it with a pickled daikon slice, smearing it with fermented soy paste and topping it with rice and grilled mushrooms for a bite as intense and complex as her own story.

It all started with Twilight

Molinaro, who majored in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before attending law school at the University of Chicago, says her inspiration to leave an unhappy marriage came from an unlikely source: Stephenie Meyer’s vampire series Twilight.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so passionate.’ I don’t need a vampire, but there’s this world out there of passion and joy and excitement, and I wasn’t getting that,” she recalled. “My relationship with my ex-husband was very fraught and difficult. So I exited that, and I think that whole process taught me a lot about fighting for things. … I’d always known how to fight for a job, fight for a grade, fight for achievement. But I’d never fought for myself.”

After ending her marriage, Molinaro — who says she weighed 70 more pounds than she does today — made some changes. She started running, made partner at her firm and signed up for an OkCupid account. Within months, she was matched with an avid runner, classical pianist and music professor named Anthony Molinaro.

She says they clicked right away, but also fought intensely — specifically about his decision to go vegan in the winter of 2015. It ended up sparking an argument in her boss’s driveway as they were about to enter a Christmas party.

“I didn’t want to go vegan with him,” she said. “I felt a little bit like, ‘You’re going to take my Korean-ness away from me with what you’re doing. You’re going to try to force me to be White with you.’ And that’s because I was so unfamiliar with vegan cuisine. And I didn’t realize there are so many ways that you can maintain your heritage and your traditional foods while being plant-based.”

A few weeks after that holiday fight, Molinaro says she decided to give veganism a try, but she refused to give up her childhood favorites. Instead, she set out to veganize them all.

“It was really meant to prove to myself that I could do this, like I could stay plant-based and I could still eat Korean food — that I wouldn’t become this whitewashed version of myself that I was so afraid of,” she says. “And that ultimately proved to be true, like 10 times over. In many ways, I know so much more about my culture than I did before.”

By consulting with her family, experimenting with various ingredients and learning more about ancient Korean Buddhist temple cuisine, she aced her favorite dishes, and then some.

Molinaro uses meaty marinated mushroom slabs in place of beef for galbi and swaps sea kelp for fermented seafood flavorings in her kimchi. She replaces the beef consomme in a cold buckwheat noodle soup with an intense radish broth, and leans on mung-bean-based Just Egg for her egg dishes.

About the same time she was weighing her decision to go vegan, Molinaro learned that her father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, which has been linked to meat consumption in some studies. She considered it a sign. Both Molinaro and her husband say they originally chose veganism for health reasons but today also embrace it for environmental and ethical reasons.

Still, as a fairly recent vegan who gets the appeal of animal products for others, Molinaro presents a more understanding face of veganism than the general public might be used to. Her posts feel much more like positive example setting than preaching.

“Joanne’s compassion paired with her passion and intensity are what make her both so successful and such a brilliant advocate for veganism,” says Molinaro’s friend Kim-Julie Hansen, who founded the Best of Vegan resource website and wrote “Vegan Reset.” “With her intersectional and nonjudgmental approach, she makes everyone feel welcome and seen, something that unfortunately isn’t always the case in the vegan community.”

Husband and chief encourager

Molinaro’s husband, Anthony, plays a prominent role in the arc of her story and her social media posts. As the three of us talk and eat, he sits at the head of the table, smiling and chiming in occasionally to amend a story. They don’t agree on every detail but also look very much in love after three years of marriage. She credits him with pushing her to write about her journey and even coming up with her famous moniker: the Korean Vegan.

“He wanted to encourage me and reinforce [the decision] by saying: ‘Oh, my God, you’re such a good cook, you should start a food blog. You’re the Korean vegan,” she recalls. “And so literally that day, he left for work, and by the time he came home, I had an Instagram, I had a Facebook, I had a YouTube channel called the Korean Vegan.”

Still a busy attorney at the time, Molinaro tended to her social media platforms in her limited spare time. But they still did pretty well, garnering 70,000 Instagram followers — and a Penguin Books cookbook deal — in the first four years.

The content was fueled by dishes she developed for her blog and then posted on Instagram along with very long story captions. The posts were moving and gorgeous, featuring Molinaro’s striking moody photography. But her audience seemed to have plateaued.

That all changed in summer 2020, when the trial lawyer dipped her tongs into the world of TikTok videos. At first she took the traditional route of racing through a whole narrated recipe in 60 seconds, but she found it chaotic and frantic.

“I was like, ‘This doesn’t make sense,’ ” she recalls. “Maybe other people can make this artistic, but I can’t make something artistic out of a rushed, panic recipe. … So I decided to just forget about sharing recipes and instead just show the food and talk about whatever … exactly like what we’re doing now.”

In her first foray, she made japchae glass noodles while recounting an incident when a woman at a store called her fat and her mom swooped in. The simple combination of chopped vegetables, stir-fried noodles and motherly protection made for some powerful TikTok content.

“I think it had over a million views in less than 24 hours,” she says.

So what was the secret sauce?

“I think just because it was totally different,” Molinaro says. “And on TikTok, they are craving safety. They crave empowerment. They crave mother energy. You know what I mean? I think a lot of them feel a little lost. And so having such a strong mother figure who was willing to do that, especially an immigrant mother, it just resonated with that community.”

After working for years to create beautiful pictures and written stories, Molinaro had an epiphany.

“I realized the world wants videos,” she says. “There’s no question about it.”

So she started posting the food “story time videos” on her Instagram feed as well. And her followers leaped from 70,000 to half a million in a year. Meanwhile, her TikTok number passed 2.5 million.

That response had its own effect on her.

“When you get feedback in the form of hearts and likes and comments, it’s insanely motivating,” she says. “You want to do more.”

And so she did, often posting new videos multiple times a week while keeping up with all of her IRL commitments and leaving little time for much else.

Social media worlds collide

Up until about a year ago, Molinaro says, she tried to keep her personas on social media separate — offering more legal talk and politics on Twitter (where she is the Korean Vegan, Esq.) while serving up food and personal stories sprinkled with a little politics on Instagram and TikTok.

But on a sunny November day last year when Joe Biden was declared president, those personalities merged. Molinaro lives in a North Side neighborhood of Chicago where citizens poured out of their homes and started dancing in the streets.

“I took like an 11-second video saying, ‘Hey, I’m so happy,’” she recalls. “And the hate I received on my Instagram was unreal. … People were commenting: ‘Just wait until the Supreme Court weighs in. Donald Trump is going to be president. And this is fraud, blah blah blah blah.’ ”

These angry responses hit a particular nerve in Molinaro, not just because she voted for Biden, but because she happens to specialize in fraud law.

“So I was like, ‘You want to know about fraud? I’ll tell you about fraud,’ she said. “So I shot a 60-second TikTok video of me, you know, being sort of obnoxious, saying, ‘Let me tell you about the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.’”

The unlikely viral video recounts the standards for bringing a fraud case to the courts and finishes with the point that if lawyers present flimsy cases that lack evidentiary support, the counsel could be subject to sanctions.

Today the video has been viewed more than 1 million times and was retweeted by the likes of Lincoln Project co-founder George Conway. It also led to an invitation for Molinaro to co-write with Bradley P. Moss an opinion piece in the Atlantic titled “No Self-Respecting Lawyer Should Touch Trump’s Election-Fraud Claims.”

She has it framed on her dining room wall and calls it “the pinnacle of my career.”

“It was so rewarding to me, because it was something that I felt so passionately about — the election, our democracy, all of these things I cannot control,” she said. “This is something that I have been screaming about at the top of my lungs since I was a little girl. And so to be able to just be in your face about it and to have the credentials to do this in a really authoritative way was beyond cathartic.”

She was especially grateful to her law firm, who let her do it as long as it was clear that she was expressing her own opinions.

Despite the badassery she projects in her opinion pieces and some of her videos, Molinaro has also been open about her struggles and vulnerabilities. Those include her challenges with body image that started when she was a kid.

“I was never small enough for my family growing up. I remember when I was 5 or 6 years old being told I was too fat,” she recalls. “Then when I went to college, the guardrails came off in terms of food. The freshman 10 turned into 35 very quickly because I had been eating Korean food my whole life, and it was now unlimited soft serve, unlimited pizza, unlimited juice and Doritos all day. And then when I got home from college, the shaming became 35 times worse. I was like, ‘I need to stop eating,’ and I lost all the weight and then some, and everyone was like, ‘Joanne, you look so great.’ They didn’t care that I was eating one meal a day and was on the treadmill for hours. They just saw the results. But that behavior was unsustainable. You can’t just not eat. Instead you binge and gain all the weight back and then some. So it was like that for 10 years. Back and forth and back and forth. I was the butt of so many jokes in my family. ‘Oh, Joanne’s fat again. Oh, Joanne is skinny again.’ ”

She says this only got worse in the early years as a young lawyer in an unhappy marriage, when she used food to relieve the stress, leaning on a regular rotation of “McDonald’s, Popeyes, [Chicago fast-food chain] Portillo’s and food from Greektown,” she says.

With her success as a celebrated cook and marathon runner, you might think Molinaro’s struggles with food and weight are behind her. But she says it’s still hard to tune out that voice on her shoulder calling her “fat and ugly” unless she is on a diet.

“I don’t think I will ever go a day until I die without either hearing that voice on my shoulder or being compelled to go back to a very restrictive way of eating,” she says with resignation. “We all have baggage and things we can’t unlearn, and I just have to learn to live with it.”

This month, Molinaro is stepping down from her position as partner in her firm (but she remains “of counsel”) to focus on her culinary projects. She’s fielding opportunities to expand her brand in video, audio and more books. And next month, she plans to launch the Korean Vegan Meal Planner, an app that “gives you thousands of recipes, and it’s linked to Instacart so you have all the ingredients delivered right to you.”

Molinaro says that she’ll remain a licensed attorney but that she wants to take some time to be more intentional about a food career that has exploded in unimaginable ways.

What is the goal behind all of it?

“I know it sounds trite, but I just want to make the world a better place,” she says. “I really just want to make it a kinder place. I’ve always felt pain when I’d see others feeling pain. And ever since I was in college, I’ve thought that kindness was the most underrated thing.”

But when she started practicing law, she says, her empathy was seen as a weakness, something that had to take a back seat to the killer instinct.

“I’m tired of being ashamed of it,” she says. “So I want to utilize the Korean Vegan to change that narrative to say, hey, it is really cool to be compassionate. It is really powerful to embrace your empathy and to effectuate meaningful, long-lasting change as a result of that. Let’s embrace that about ourselves and, in the process, try to find and deliver joy.”

Eng is the Chicago reporter for Axios and co-host of the food and health podcast Chewing.

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