Joanne Molinaro, aka The Korean Vegan, Doesn’t Mince Words

The outspoken TikTok sensation is passionate about making delicious food and is unapologetic in her advocacy for justice

Joanne Molinaro aka The Korean Vegan. Image via instagram/the.korean.vegan

interview by julie gueraseva
Thursday, May 20, 2021

Cooking videos aren’t typically emotional revelations with a cinematic feel. Unless they’re Joanne Molinaro’s 60-second TikToks, which have gone viral multiple times. Since joining the platform less than a year ago, the Chicago-based content creator and food blogger known as The Korean Vegan has already amassed over two millions fans there. Her popularity lies in the appeal of her singular persona and video style, which combines poignant and frank storytelling with gorgeous footage of food prep. For Molinaro, cooking serves as a conduit for tackling serious and emotional topics, like the escalation in anti-Asian hate crimes in the US. Over the past year, incidents have doubled to over 6,000, the majority of them against women, prompting the House to pass the COVID–19 Hate Crimes Act earlier this week to confront the violence.
 “Come over to my house, and I’m going to cook you some food. And then while we’re eating, we’re just going to talk about things,” Molinaro tells LAIKA about her approach. A typical The Korean Vegan video has Molinaro veganizing a traditional Korean dish like kimchi fried rice, while she charismatically narrates stories about everything from surviving heartbreak, to her family’s immigrant experience, to combating racism. She often speaks directly into the camera, as though we’re sitting across the table from her. (“So the next time you hear words that are designed to cut down, diminish or erase our trauma, you call it out,” she commands us in a recent video that addresses the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.) It’s this type of candor and uncompromising dedication to justice, not to mention the delicious recipes, that have won her the hearts of so many. Molinaro is also a trial lawyer and partner at her firm — a career that informs the intellectual and research-driven approach to how she crafts social media content. And her creative endeavors continue to expand, to our collective benefit. In October 2021, she will release her debut cookbook-slash-memoir The Korean Vegan Cookbook: Reflections and Recipes from Omma’s Kitchen. Also coming soon are speaking engagements, podcasts and television programming, thanks to her recent signing with talent agency UTA. Safe to say, we’ll be seeing, and hearing, a lot more from Joanne Molinaro. We caught up with the busy multi-hyphenate by Skype to talk about her creative process, effecting change through art, and authenticity.

LAIKA: I imagine a big part of your goal is to reach people who have opposing views. What have you seen that gives you encouragement?
Joanne: I’ve certainly received messages from people saying, I have no reason to understand or relate to anything that you say because I’m white, I’m from the South, I work in law enforcement, I have nothing in common with you. [Yet] so much of what you say resonates with me. That encourages me, because it means that I’ve connected with them and whether or not that effectuates political change, it’s at least a touch point. I want to cause someone to pause when they think about these issues the next time, to at least have a thumbprint on their heart. And that I may have some influence over their thinking on these issues. That’s really what I want to accomplish by The Korean Vegan. And I do believe that I am accomplishing that. Is there a way to really measure that? Probably not. Anecdotally, I have gotten enough reassurance from people all over the world, from all walks of life, to make me feel like I’m on the right path. 

Was the storytelling aspect of your content an intentional approach from the beginning?
The Korean Vegan started out as your basic bread and butter, well, bread and vegan butter food blog. It was meant to veganize Korean food so that I could actually have something to eat. In 2017, I shared my first story about my family, and it was 1000% intentional. I felt so upset and anxious and deflated by what was happening in our country, subsequent to the 2016 election. [As] an attorney, I didn’t know what my place was in that conversation. I saw a lot of my colleagues and my peers joining Lawyers For Change type of groups, heading to O’Hare to protest people being detained on the basis of their ethnicity. And I [thought,] ‘Is that what I’m supposed to do? That’s actually not my most effective use here.’ I have a platform, people seem to listen to my opinions. But I have to [share them] in a way that isn’t going to cause people to be defensive or feel like I’m imposing on them.
I figured that the best place to start was with food because everybody needs to eat. It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, come over to my house and I’m going to cook you some food. And then while we’re eating, we’re just going to talk about things.’ [In one of my videos] I tell a story about my mom that I tell at every dinner party. Everybody loves that story but buried in it are so many things that are endemic to the immigrant experience, and those details filter into a person’s brain. It’s engaging because people can relate to it, whether or not they’re an immigrant. They can relate to being alone. They can relate to being fearful of their future. And because of that, all of the other details sink in as well.

You have so many balls in the air — it’s very impressive. How do you make sure you bring the fun into the process?
It can only be this way because I have so much fun doing it. Otherwise, obviously it wouldn’t work. My strategy for maintaining fun is diversifying. I’m very focused on growing my YouTube [which is] a totally new format for me. It’s longer form, and it really has me motivated to stay creative and to create a new way of communicating with my community, while also continuing to build on that community. I’m on [audio-based app] Clubhouse now, which I view as a good avenue for my personal growth as a content creator, as a woman, and as a lawyer — the full spectrum of Joanne. On Clubhouse, you are exposed to so many different ideas [that] you don’t necessarily agree with. Instead of [having] a knee jerk [reaction], I want to be very careful and thoughtful. I like my Twitter account because my followers are a community, very much like my Instagram community. They are very caring, kind people. Politically, we’re very much aligned in our values. So I know I can trust them when I ask them a question.

Joanne with her Creamy Vegan Ramen Noodles. Via

Your video format is very innovative, and I would imagine its high production value contributes to how it impacts people.
I hope so. A lot of work goes into it, for sure. If you look at my photographs, my videos [are] very much an extrapolation of my aesthetic. That is the style that I prefer, which is a little bit moody, a little bit less in-your-face. So my video style is very much my art. When I [joined] TikTok, it was to watch content. But, ultimately, I was inspired to create content. When I started doing the kind of storytelling videos that I now do a lot [it was because] I [couldn’t] post photos with captions on TikTok. I thought, ‘I guess I’ll have to post videos and just [narrate the captions].’ But you only get 60 seconds, so that creates a different kind of challenge and makes TikTok really fun.

There’s been an escalation in anti-Asian racist violence, and Asian Americans still lack visibility in entertainment and in the media in this country. And yet, your platforms have gained so much popularity. Have you thought about what that’s possibly saying about our society?
I definitely believe that there’s a lot of goodness [in people]. I believe that there always has been, I think it manifests itself in different ways. Different things challenge that goodness. And therefore it may take a different appearance, right? But I ultimately believe that the vast majority of human beings are good. When you look at young people today, I absolutely believe they have an openness that didn’t exist in my generation and didn’t exist in the generations that preceded mine. I think they are informing the types of conversations that need to happen in the next several years.
And I love that people are interested in Korean culture but what inevitably happens when there’s a mass interest in something, is there is a flattening, you know, a potential fetishization thing.


So how do you resolve that? Obviously art is so powerful in effecting widespread change.

It is a really complicated topic, and it’s an emotional topic for Asian Americans. Anyone who has elderly parents [will be] emotionally affected by what they’re seeing. But it hits different when the person who’s getting attacked looks like your dad. Bringing awareness to these issues absolutely has value. I liked what TikTok had done, [by] creating a [#StopAsianHate hashtag] and making it a trending topic, so that people were faced with it as soon as you open the explore page. I think that was a really important thing to do. And for me, as an Asian American content creator, that meant a lot. 
These attacks raise a lot of complicated issues regarding the dynamics of the AAPI community within a much larger community of minorities, oppressed peoples. So it’s very hard to figure out and navigate a path that doesn’t necessarily cause damage to somebody else, or at least be perceived in that way. The most authentic way to utilize my platform is to continue to do what I’ve always done [which is] just openly tell people how I feel about something and hope that they trust me enough to open themselves to me as a result of that.

“I’ve never allowed my veganism to take anything away from my views on social justice. They need to be aligned. They need to work together. They need to form a whole.”

Having seen the potency of social media and the success you’ve had, would you encourage a younger person who follows you who is trying to figure out how to use their voice to start accounts?
I think that there are many examples of young people who are utilizing their platform to effectuate good change by just using their crappy old cell phone. I’m doing it [professionally] because that’s the only way I know how to do it. My first viral video was me using my old iPhone. There was no voiceover, it was just me making my mom’s braised potato recipe. I continued to evolve from that point. One of the first TikTok accounts I ever followed was @youngqim; he just uses his phone. I started a TikTok because I wanted to see more content like that. He teaches me so many things about history, about how to articulate a certain point of view in a way that’s understood by Gen Z. 
However, I would caution any young person [in regards to social media]. I’m 41 years old. I’ve been through a few things. I know how to deal with negativity. I know how to deal with bad comments. I know how to deal with bullying. And I think I know enough how to avoid cancellation. A young person who has no social media experience, who may not understand how [to not take negative comments] personally may find that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew because it can be like draining on your mental resources.


@thekoreanveganEasy no prep kimchi fried rice. ##foodtiktok ##김치볶음밥 ##먹방 ##storytime ##koreanfood♬ Snow – Piano Music – Background Music

Compassion is an indispensable part of the moral fiber of the vegan movement. But there’s been instances of racism within the movement.
I’m not gonna pretend to be like some of my friends who are incredible, absolutely fierce like vegan warriors and activists. I’m not ever going to be that person who goes undercover and exposes a slaughterhouse that’s been brutalizing animals. I do have a personal belief and my personal belief is that the consumption of animal products, whether in diet or otherwise, as we currently know it in our world, is not necessary. And if it’s not necessary, that means it is cruel. And I believe in order to mitigate what I view as worldwide cruelty towards animals is not only to continue to abide by what that means from a value perspective in your own life—which is obviously avoiding animal products, not buying leather—but also by being a good example to people. [Part of my approach] is show people that: a) vegan food can be absolutely delicious, as evidenced by my beautiful videos and b) I’m not racist. I’m not homophobic. There was an article written about me a while ago [about how] the Korean Vegan “hopes to make you less racist in 60 second videos.” That is a great sum-up of what I’m trying to do, but I feel like I’m way more successful at getting people to eat less meat than changing racists.

“My personal belief is that the consumption of animal products, whether in diet or otherwise, as we currently know it in our world, is not necessary. And if it’s not necessary, that means it is cruel.”

So would you say racism is a more challenging ingrained behavior to change.
I think it’s much easier to replace a hamburger than it is to replace an ideology. I like to think that I’m making inroads into both, and that makes me very happy. I do think though, one of the reasons I have any credibility whatsoever, particularly with this younger generation, is because I’ve never allowed my veganism to take anything away from my views on social justice. They need to be aligned. They need to work together. They need to form a whole. But I feel like some people believe that, well, if you’re for one, you can’t be for another, almost like they cannot co-exist in any real meaningful way. And I find that to be totally, totally backwards and very disturbing. When I come to that understanding [of] where do I stand on these issues, then I need to very forcefully communicate that because it is my responsibility as a person who has a platform to speak out against injustice. What kind of vegan am I if I’m just sitting here creating vegan food, when a human being gets murdered on television because he’s black. That doesn’t make any sense to me. But you’d be surprised, when I became very vocal about those issues so many vegans came at me saying, ‘you should just care about animals.’ I had one person who commented on my YouTube, “you mention LGBTQ and BLM, but [not] animals in your little byline on Instagram, so you’re not a real vegan.”

As far as being ‘forceful’ in your language — what does mean to you? Just being passionate?
Passionate is a good way of putting it, trying to not be rude [or] hostile. Here’s the thing, I hate being accused of deception. That’s why I reveal a lot on Instagram, particularly in my Stories. I know I’m breaking all the social media rules by talking about these [social justice] issues. This became very much a point in this past year with the election. I want [my audience] to know that this is how I feel. That’s why I changed my bio on Instagram to be very clear. I support BLM. I support gay rights. I get political. If you don’t want to deal with that, then don’t follow me. Don’t come here. [But], if you can deal with it, then I will create a safe space for everyone to have these kinds of discussions.

There’s a level of respect that is palpable from your community and your audience.
I’m very lucky with my audience, but that’s not to say that there isn’t necessarily a better way of doing it. The thing that I hate the most is being inauthentic. Maybe if I wasn’t so in-your-face about these things, I could keep more people who are on the fence and ultimately change them in some meaningful way. But at a certain point I decided I just don’t have the patience to censor myself.

How does working in the legal profession affect your perspective?
It doesn’t necessarily change my views, but it can change how I arrive at them. I have a tendency to be a lot more methodical, and less impulsive about my views. I don’t like to jump to conclusions. I like to arrive at them through a process of education and analysis. I want to make sure I have the best available data at my fingertips when I am considering an issue. My brother calls me “the most liberal conservative I’ve ever met.” People would be very surprised to hear that I can be very conservative—and it’s not my views, but in the way that I [arrive] at them. I’ll look at statistics, but I’m only going to look at peer-reviewed studies. I’m only going to look at sources that have been credentialed. I’m going to pick up my copy of Frederick Douglass and read through chapters [instead of an] Instagram story [as though] it’s the authority on dismantling the police force. Being a lawyer has caused me to have a very healthy amount of skepticism for things that I see. I want to understand things on my own. Here’s the information, based upon my number crunching.

You come across as very grounded in your identity as a woman. Where does that come from?
There are certain things that I’m very confident about. I’m very confident in my values and in that I’m a good person. What I’m looking for when I talk about confidence, is there something that is unmoving about that person? And for me, what’s unmoving is that I know at the end of the day, [regardless of] what happens in my life, how often I fail, how many times I lose. I know at the end of the day, I’m a good person, that I’m a kind person and that I love people, and that I will never change that about myself. And that is the most important thing in the whole world to me. I don’t care how smart you are, or how much money you have, or anything like that. I feel like the most important thing, and sometimes the most underrated thing, is a person’s capacity for kindness and compassion. And I know I have that. So that’s what anchors me at the end of the day. Am I insecure about my body? A hundred thousand percent. Am I insecure about [whether] I’m good enough at my job? Always. Am I questioning, is my content good enough? Absolutely. And feeling pressured to do better, to put more out, to constantly rework my stuff so that it stays fresh all the time. All of those things are still stressful for me. But you know, at the end of the day, I always come back to: am I a good person? Am I always trying to do the right thing? And if the answer to that question is yes, then everything else sort of gets anchored around that.