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Joanne Molinaro was pissed off.
It was 2020, and after a few years of posting food content where she paired recipes with stories about herself and her family, she decided to bring viewers into her life. “It was a video about a day in the life of a Chicago lawyer, pandemic edition,” she says. “I’d seen a couple of those that did really well, and that I thought were really clever.”
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The video, which she posted to TikTok as The Korean Vegan, followed her to her job at law firm Foley & Lardner and then back home, where she put together a cooking demonstration for her digital audience. The video didn’t bring in tons of views, Molinaro says, but it got some–and also one particular comment that drew her ire: “Looks like you don’t work very hard,” someone had said.
“[T]hat really upset me,” she says. So she responded to the comment with a video. “You can see that I’m reading out loud from my computer because you can see my eyes moving from sentence to sentence. I was so mad.”
Molinaro posted the video and went to bed. The next morning, she got a phone call from the PR department of Foley & Lardner. Her response had gone viral, and the CEO wanted to talk to her.
“I remember, I started to cry, saying that I was going to get fired from my job,” she says, laughing. It’s easy to laugh about now, but at the time, it felt apocalyptic. The CEO had some stern words for her, but didn’t fire her, and not long later, she made partner. She remained partner while her presence across TikTok and YouTube grew, and while she debuted her first book, The Korean Vegan Cookbook: Reflections and Recipes from Omma’s Kitchen, in 2021; it became a New York Times bestseller and received a James Beard Award.
Now, nearly three years later, Molinaro is a full-time creator, with 3 million followers on TikTok, 1.1 million on YouTube, a podcast, and an in-progress manuscript for her second book. She’s heading into 2024 hoping to do more instructional cooking videos–and, also on that side of things, just released a Skillshare class about turning your hobby into a career.
Check out our chat with her below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tubefilter: Let’s jump right in. I’m very excited to get to talk to you–I find your approach to culinary content very unique. So, for me, the purpose of these features is to give people who already know you a deeper insight into you behind the camera, but it’s also to introduce new people to you. To start, imagine someone’s reading this and doesn’t know who you are. Give me a little bit of background about you, where you’re from, and what led you here.
Joanne Molinaro: Sure. Happy to do that. I’m born and raised in Chicago. My parents are immigrants from South Korea. I think most people know that my parents were born in what is now known as North Korea. My mother was a refugee in South Korea. My father, he had some family in South Korea, but his mother and his father both lived in North Korea when he was born. They moved into South Korea during the war or shortly after the conclusion of World War II and eventually found their way to Chicago, Illinois, where I was born. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I went to college, University of Illinois Urbana, went to law school at the University of Chicago. Had a great career in law from 2004 till 2021 when I withdrew from partnership at my law firm to pursue The Korean Vegan full-time.
Tubefilter: Amazing. That’s a big leap to make. I know you started Korean Vegan as a blog in 2016 and then you moved to video in 2020. Can you tell me a little bit about what prompted the shift to video?
Joanne Molinaro: Sure. I tried starting as a video YouTuber, if you will, in 2016, but I found that it was just very, very difficult. If you’re familiar with YouTube, their learning curve is so different from short-form content because by 2016, YouTube had been around for nearly a decade and as a result, YouTubers were very savvy when it came to videographer. Many of them hired professional videographers and producers to create their content. As somebody who knew next to nothing about videography and editing videos, and who also had a full-time job as a partner at a large law firm, I simply didn’t have the time or the resources to create the kinds of videos that I thought would not compete with, but at least be accepted by an audience that had grown used to very beautifully produced videos.
I quickly switched to still photography, which I was like, “Well, at this time, Instagram is still supposed to be– you’re supposed to take a picture with your phone and put a filter on it.” That’s the whole idea of Instagram, right? Instant photogram, right? That was the idea. I just did that because that was so much easier. I started a website a couple of months after that, where I would add a recipe once every three months or something like that, whenever I had time.
Then of course, in 2020, everybody was on TikTok because everybody was sequestered in their homes and terrified about what the day might bring. I logged on to TikTok mostly just to see what all the fuss was about. Within 14 days, I found myself pretty much addicted as a consumer. I found it hilarious. I was really embroiled in all the storytelling that was going on. I decided, “Well, maybe I’ll try making a TikTok.” I experimented with all sorts of different kinds of videos, all of which was shot with my iPhone. I didn’t need a fancy camera. I didn’t need Premiere or Final Cut to edit them. In fact, people appeared to enjoy something that was a little bit less refined. I started doing that and eventually found my niche.
Tubefilter: Very cool. It’s very ironic to hear you say that, because what drew me to your videos was I feel like you do have very high cinematography. The way your videos are lit is very distinct. You have this rich jewel tone.
Joanne Molinaro: First of all, TikTok isn’t what it was when I started in 2020. I think that there is now a premium for more produced content. I think a lot of the YouTubers who have an immense amount of experience in cinematography, filmography, and storytelling have now decided they want to invest in short-form content. As consumers, we’re the beneficiaries of that beautiful, really experienced, and knowledgeable content, artistic content. I did have a certain level of experience in photography by the time 2020 rolled around. In 2016, I knew very little about it. By 2020, I knew how to use a DSLR. I knew a little bit about white balance and lighting. I also certainly knew a lot about storytelling and the visual components of storytelling.
I brought all of that to bear ultimately in my TikToks, even while using my phone, which I did probably up until 2021. I was using exclusively my phone to edit and do all the things until about 2021, which is when I was like, “I do have a lot of expensive equipment lying around, might as well use it for something,” and that’s how my content evolved to be what you probably associate it with today.
Tubefilter: Definitely. Another thing that draws me to your stuff is how you rarely say, “Today I’m making X thing.” It’s always how you’re always telling very incredibly personal stories. You have an interesting approach to voiceover where you’re pairing storytelling. You’re clearly very passionate about storytelling. I’m curious how you found that niche, where you’re pairing that particular type of voiceover with your videos.
Joanne Molinaro: I think that I’ve always loved writing. It’s so funny, the term storyteller is now bandied about so frequently. It’s like the thing now, but storytelling has been around since we were able to communicate even if we weren’t using actual words, and it’s sort of a medium that I have had to dabble with as a hobby, because I’ve always loved creative writing. Even professionally, as a trial lawyer, I got to tell stories all the time, whether it’s to my opposing counsel, to the judge, or to the jury. That’s pretty much all I did. Sometimes they were mean and condescending stories, but they were stories nonetheless. I think that when I started writing the content for my voiceovers, I brought all of that again to bear because I didn’t really know any other way to communicate.
Now, the decision to not make videos where I’m like, “Today I’m going to make tteokbokki. First, add gochujang, then add water.” That was very deliberate because I found that that style was very chaotic and didn’t really mesh well with the moody, introspective visuals that I was producing. I was like, “I just don’t want to do that kind of video paired with this ambiance that I’m creating.” Instead, I decided to do what I had done on my Instagram, where again, I was largely just still photographs. Instead of posting the recipes and the captions, I would just tell a story about my family.
That, again, was a decision I made in 2017 after the election here in the United States. I was like, “Clearly, a lot of people really don’t know what it’s like to be an immigrant family here in the US and what that America looks like. Maybe I could reach some people with just these very plain stories that make it clear that my family isn’t that crazy or exotic or weird. We’re all the same.”
Tubefilter: When you switched full-time to this in 2021, what changed for you behind the scenes in terms of your production schedule, and the way you’re approaching things in general?
Joanne Molinaro: It’s only been– I feel like it was just yesterday. It’s been about two years, a little over two years since I made that switch and, to be honest, I’m still figuring things out. I think that not only is it new to me, but the creator economy is new to the world, frankly. It’s still in its very nascent stages and what it means to carve out a successful path in that world remains largely unexcavated. I’m going through that process. Obviously, I devote pretty much 100% of my productive time to The Korean Vegan but what that looks like is maybe not what I expected. I think that I expected that I would be essentially just creating TikToks 24 hours a day but that can be a good chunk of my day.
As a creative person, and I think a lot of people who are creative will understand this, if you literally just do one form of art every single day, day in and day out, for many people, creatively, that is a path towards ruin and burnout. I learned that pretty quickly and so I’ve been trying to diversify not just my business as The Korean Vegan, but also diversify my portfolio in terms of the output I am creating. Very specifically, over the past several weeks, and definitely today, I’m devoting probably 80% of my effort and my time towards finishing the manuscript for my second cookbook and that makes a lot of sense from a creative standpoint. It also makes a lot of sense from a fiscal standpoint. The book advance together with the royalties comprise probably 50% of The Korean Vegan revenue, so it merits a good chunk of my time.
Tubefilter: Your first book did very well. James Beard Award Winner, New York Times Bestseller. What was the process for that? Were you approached to write that book? How did it go?
Joanne Molinaro: I had about, I don’t know, I think 20,000 to 30,000 followers on Instagram at that time and a–now, good friend of mine, I barely knew her at the time–but there was this woman who owned a very popular vegan Instagram account. She was working with a literary agent who had procured for her a very lucrative book deal. She was very kind. Again, like how you noted that my content is a little different, she also noted that my Instagram content was very different.
Tubefilter: Oh, interesting.
Joanne Molinaro: Yes, she’s like, “You post actual writing in your captions, not like ‘two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.'” She said, “I love your writing so much that I really want to read a book by you, and guess what, I happen to know a very successful literary agent who might help you with that.” She introduced me to her lit agent who would ultimately become my lit agent, who then worked with me over a period of several months to come up with a book proposal for a cookbook. He shopped it around for a few days. I was basically under contract with one of the largest publishing houses in the world a few weeks later.
Tubefilter: How long did the writing process take you?
Joanne Molinaro: That whole thing happened probably in 2000– I signed my book deal, I remember, in late 2018. The book was published in late 2021.
Tubefilter: Oh, so good timing.
Joanne Molinaro: Yes, it was a very long time. Keep in mind, I was still a partner at a large law firm throughout the entire production of that book.
Tubefilter: Yes, also publishing takes an eternity.
Joanne Molinaro: Especially if there’s a global pandemic in the middle of it.
Tubefilter: Yes, it is very serendipitous that it came out as your audience was ramping up.
Joanne Molinaro: It was somewhat serendipity, but it was also calculated to a point. I use that term, not to imply that there was anything malicious about it, but I do remember my agent asking me, “Your book is going to come out in like a year, what are your social media plans?” At that time, I had 60,000 followers on Instagram. I remember being like, “What more do I need to do? Geez, Charlie, I have 60,000 Instagram followers. Isn’t that enough?” Maybe it’s the Asian in me, like somebody gives me a goal, I’m going to frickin do it.
At the time, I was experimenting with political TikTok, or work TikTok. I wasn’t doing food content for the first few weeks and then I was like, “Oh, okay, well, Charlie is telling me I have to do social media. Maybe I’ll do a food video,” and before I knew it, they started going viral. Yes, it was serendipitous in terms of TikTok having its moment at that time but part of it was also in my agent nudging me to go and do a bit more with my social media.
Tubefilter: For the second book, were you approached basically immediately after the first book released?
Joanne Molinaro: I was definitely approached even while I was already under contract for book one. Many times Charlie had to fend them off with his– Charlie’s British. I think of him as this knight in shining armor. He was fending them off and being like, “Sorry, my client is already under contract,” and under my contract, I was not allowed to entertain any other offers until the book was published. I also knew just based upon the unbelievable experience I had with my publisher–Avery was the imprint at Penguin Random House–I knew I wanted to work with them again, and probably for as long as I could because I grew to love my publisher, my editor, the entire PR team, the marketing team, the sales team.
I don’t know about other authors and their experiences, but I could not have had a more beautiful experience from my first book. When the first book was published, sure, lots of people wanted to speak to me about Book 2, but I was pretty much zeroed in on the team that I had already worked with.
Tubefilter: I’d like to hear a little bit more about the videos that originally took off for you. I know you were saying, “Okay, maybe I’ll do a food video.” Do you remember the first one or two that went viral for you?
Joanne Molinaro: Yes, I do. I remember the first two. I don’t remember which order they came in, to be honest, but one was a food video and one was not a food video. I’ll do the one that was not a food video because that whole experience is way more memorable to me. It was a video about a day in the life of a Chicago lawyer, pandemic edition. Something like that. I’d seen a couple of those that did really well, and that I thought were really clever and I was like, “Oh, I could do something like this. I’m in Chicago and I want to show what my life is like on a day-to-day basis during the pandemic.”
It was literally just from the first thing I did, whether it was like to go for a run and have breakfast with my husband, take the bus to work, walk into the office and write a brief, and then go to my coffee break with my favorite partner and then come back and work some more. Then I take the bus back at home, do a cooking demonstration, and then eat what I made for the cooking demonstration and that’s the day in my life. I remember that didn’t go viral. I remember somebody responded to that, “Looks like you don’t work very hard,” and that really upset me.
Here’s the thing is, at that point, my presence on social media was still so modest that I was not used to trolling. That was not a phenomenon that I knew how to deal with in a very healthy way so I responded to that comment and it was so embarrassing. I really wrote out a rebuttal like I would if I were writing a brief at work and I actually discovered that this woman was a lawyer and so it made me even more mad.
Tubefilter: Oh, really?
Joanne Molinaro: Yes. I responded to it. It was so embarrassing. If you find it, it’s way buried in the deep. You can see that I’m reading out loud from my computer because you can see my eyes moving from sentence to sentence. I was so mad and I responded to it and that video did go viral. The only reason I knew it went viral is because I got a phone call the next day from the PR department of my law firm, being like, “There are articles about you, the Foley lawyer who clapped back on TikTok.” I was like, “What?” They’re like, “Yes, the CEO wants to have a conversation with you.”
Tubefilter: Oh, god.
Joanne Molinaro: I remember, I started to cry, saying that I was going to get fired from my job and this is in the middle of the pandemic. I thought I was going to get fired from my job and I started to cry. My husband was like, “It’s okay, babe.” I’m like, “No, I’m going to delete it. I’m going to delete it.” It was the most panicked moment of my life. I remember I called my mentor at work, the partner who had been my mentor since I was a summer intern there. I’m like, “Ellen, oh my God, I have 36,000 followers on TikTok because of this 1 video.” She’s like, “How is that possible? You just started two weeks ago.” I was like, “I know this is terrible.” I do remember that. That was so memorable to me.
I remember telling my CEO, “I will delete it and I will never, ever, ever post anything other than food content going forward,” which obviously didn’t stick, but that was a fun conversation because he didn’t know what TikTok was. Then the other one was the potato video, which is a classic, not going to speak and I’m just going to make the food with my phone. I’m going to put the ingredients in the text and it was a really ugly video. The lighting was horrible. I used my iPhone. I didn’t even use the front-facing camera. I used the back-facing camera. It was horrible, but it went viral. It had over 600,000 views in just a couple of days. That was very exciting and terrifying at the same time.
@thekoreanvegan This is a very accurate representation of my day and if you’ve followed me for a while, I’m sure you can attest to that! I spend a good chunk of the morning running around and working out. I’m all about taste, convenience, and nutrition when it comes to my meals which is where @Chipotle Lifestyle Bowls fit in so perfectly. You can order your Lifestyle Bowl (I highly recommend the Plant Powered Bowl!) today online or on the app! #chipotlepartner ♬ original sound – Joanne L. Molinaro (이선영)
Tubefilter: The responding story is so classic.
Joanne Molinaro: I think it happens to a lot of people.
Tubefilter: It does! And it’s hard not to have those impulses. I struggle with this too, because it’s like, back in the day, I used to respond to people who had terrible opinions on the internet because maybe your earnestness and your information and your facts would change their mind. But that doesn’t happen anymore.
Joanne Molinaro: It doesn’t. And it takes so much more out of you than it does out of them.
Tubefilter: Yes. I have to know, what did your CEO say?
Joanne Molinaro: He said that, and it’s so funny that he used this word because I have been told this many times as a lawyer, that I came across as condescending and patronizing. I have been told that before, when I deal with opposing counsel as just constructive feedback like, “Hey, Joanne, you sound condescending.” He didn’t think that it gave off the best image for the firm and that was very legitimate feedback.
At the time, I wanted to make it clear, my clients deserved 100% of me in every respect. I was very mindful of that. Now, it turns out that my clients loved the video [laughs] because many of them were women. They really related to what I was saying, which was, “My day doesn’t just begin and end with the law. I have other things that I need to do that I like to do, and why should I be shamed from doing it?” A lot of my clients applauded the video, and they were excited for me. I think that was really a hint at that time for me that maybe there was something more than a career in law for me, that just as there should be more in all of our lives than what our careers are.
Tubefilter: Yes, that is terrifying. The whole story was terrifying.
Joanne Molinaro: It was so scary because I didn’t know that I had any future outside of the law at that time. I was still very firmly entrenched, and even more so because of the pandemic. I was like, “Nobody’s going to take my job from me if it’s the last thing they do,” because we were so scared at the time and so this idea that the CEO– I didn’t even know he knew my name, that he wanted to talk to me about this was so horrifying to me. My husband was so funny. My husband’s a pianist and been an artist his whole life so he doesn’t understand corporate America whatsoever. He was so upset that I deleted that TikTok. He was like, “How could you do this? This is the start of something new.” I’m like, “Dude, I’m not losing my job over this. Not happening.”
Tubefilter: Yes. but it shook out. It’s okay.
Joanne Molinaro: Totally shook out. A few months later, I reposted it. [laughs]
Tubefilter: Oh yeah?
Joanne Molinaro: Yes, because people were asking me what my first viral video was. I was like, “Here you go. Nobody cares anymore. I’ve done so many other things that are more controversial than this stupid video.”
Tubefilter: Growth. There it is. What was the catalyst that led you to go on this full-time? Was there a specific income level that made you confident enough to go for it?
Joanne Molinaro: That’s a great question. Part of it is the touchy-feely answer, which is, I think, what a lot of people want to hear and what composes so many of these self-help videos and self-help ideas, which is, oh, one day I decided I was just going to go for it, and I had enough confidence in myself as a person and blah blah blah. That was certainly true. I had a lot of preconceived ideas of safety that I needed to hurdle, many of which I inherited from my parents. They were refugees, they were homeless. The idea of giving up a 401k and a steady paycheck was like, what? Why would you do that? You might as well just shoot yourself.
It was very, very difficult for me to overcome those things because I had been taught and conditioned to believe that that’s pretty much the end game. That’s the goal. You’ve already finished your finish line. You’re the partner at one of the largest law firms in the world. What are you doing? I think that I’d listened to a lot of podcasts and my friend, the same one who had introduced me to my lit agent, she had always been encouraging me, “You could do this. You could really make a career out of this.” She said something to me I won’t ever forget. She said, “You know what? No offense, because I know you’re a fantastic lawyer, but Foley can find another Joanne Molinaro in a second. There are so many others who will take your place, but there’s nobody else in the world who can do The Korean Vegan like you do.”
That was very important to me because it meant, and I come from the University of Chicago, so I think about everything in terms of supply and demand. I was like, “There you go. There’s only one of me. I’m the only one who can create the supply. The question then becomes, is there any demand for the supply, the unique supply that I am ready to give?” Over time, obviously, TikTok, book sales, all of those things mounted as evidence that yes, in fact, there is demand for what I have to supply. I think it was once I realized that I could maybe cobble together a quarter [laughs] of what I make on a law firm salary.
In my own financial projections, I had 70 different spreadsheets and bank account statements, and all those things literally on multiple folders organized into my hard drive. I would look at them every single day and I’d do the math over and over and over, whether on a calculator or in my head, I’d be just doing it over and over. Eventually, I said, “I think conservatively I could make, the first few years, maybe a quarter, 25% of what I bring in on a lawyer’s income. If we live very, very conservatively, I think we could live off of that and be happy. If that’s possible, then I think I deserve this chance at happiness.”
Now, that part, that mental part, that’s so much harder than I think people realize. I think people think that we’re all designed to want to be happy, but I think many of us are designed to sacrifice happiness for safety or the illusion of safety. That was really me and so I really had to do a lot of work in both those ways, whether it’s the financial work to try and figure out, can I make this work, and plus the mental work to ultimately conclude that I deserve to give it a chance.
Tubefilter: Very important. Also spreadsheets, very important.
Joanne Molinaro: I love spreadsheets. I’m a big Excel fan. I’m old school. I really don’t know how to use any of the other applications.
Tubefilter: I know we’re running over time here, so as a last question, I know you’re working on your second book, but any other plans or goals for The Korean Vegan for the next year or so?
Joanne Molinaro: I think the next year is, I know you said that I don’t do a lot of videos where I’m saying, “Hi, I’m making this.” I want to do more of those videos. [laughs]
Tubefilter: There’s nothing wrong with that, to be clear!
Joanne Molinaro: I like those videos. I find them very helpful. I’d like to participate in that venue, if you will, and see where that takes me. Obviously, that content has been saturating so many feeds these days so it will be a fun challenge for me to figure out how to make it unique and how to build a community around that. Also, I’m going to really double down on my app. I have a recipe app where it’s basically where you’ll find all my recipes other than the ones in a cookbook, and even some of those. It’s a meal planner/app/online community where I do live cooking classes. I’ve really just enjoyed doing that, but I haven’t given it as much attention as I really wanted to because I was trying to figure out other aspects of The Korean Vegan. I’ve now zeroed in on that being one of those things that deserves my priority. Of course, I continue to want to build on the podcast.
This is a really funny story which I hope you have time for but on Christmas morning, I was going on a three-mile run and I slipped and fell on a pine cone in the middle of the road and I was literally splattered on the road about to throw up or faint because I was in so much pain and I was covered in blood and it was awful.
A couple of people because I live in a great neighborhood, they stop and they’re like, “Are you okay? Do you need help?” I’m like, “No I’m fine. I’ve already called my brother who is just there and he’s going to come pick me up,” and this one woman, she rolls up and she’s like, “Are you okay? Do you need– Oh my god, are you The Korean Vegan?” I was like, “Yes, but I’m literally about to throw up in your face right now.” She’s like, “I just want you to know I love your podcast. It really got me through some rough times,” and I was like, “I love that. I’m so happy for you but I’m literally going to faint.” [laughs] That meant so much to me, a very core, loyal following of the podcast and I love creating that content so we’ll continue working on that this year.