This post is brought to you by MasterClass.
So by now, you’ve probably been inundated those MasterClass ads right? How about another one?! 😀
Do you want to learn from Thomas Keller? Does he have new insight to share? Does MasterClass actually deliver its worth to newbs and experts alike? The answer is yes, yes, and yes. (The Natalie Portman class also seems strangely compelling; perhaps, acting is my new comeback career?)
MasterClass is basically if Coursera and Netflix got together and had a lovechild, though its centered around the creative arts. The most interesting facet about it is the talent featured — it's all people on top of their game, if they're already not already household names.
(There's 83 MasterClasses spread out among 9 different disciplines. The overwhelming majority, 72%, or 59 classes, are in the creative fields, including cooking.)
The annual, unlimited membership costs $180; for right now, MasterClass is offering two memberships for the cost of one, coming out to $90 each. Compared against the cost of a Netflix subscription, at $108 per year or $9 per month, it is just slightly cheaper if you're able to get a friend in on it.1
Conversely, individual classes can be bought for forever at $90; fundamentally, it’s a pricing strategy designed to incentive users to pay for the higher-tier, all-access pass.2 (MasterClass also offers a 30-day refund as part of a satisfaction guarantee, though the company doesn't go to great lengths to promote this.)
But after binging MasterClass for countless hours (days? weeks?), two classes more than makes up for the price through the expert production and masterful content. Pun completely intended.
If you've been on the fence for a while, every existing MasterClass customer we talked to told us that they could not "love it more" and couldn't understand what took them so long to bite the bullet (also, our thoughts). Really, though, most people just spend an existential amount of time grappling with the price for a while. 🤣
It’s also been a while since I’ve had this much fun learning things that can be applied immediately in different areas of my life. It's also instruction that I wouldn't necessarily get from, say, YouTube. Though those YouTubers can be pretty damn good at what they do.
(For price comparison purposes, run-of-the-mill cooking classes run $60+, though that often includes the price of ingredients and a level of interactivity that can’t be found online. Considering most people will be able to hear directly from folks at the pinnacle of their field, MasterClass is pretty damn awesome.)
Each MasterClass offers a varying different amount of content: The ones we chose ranged from three to seven hours of instruction. Each has their own community of like-minded students (a forum), and often comes with an instructional booklet (a PDF).
For example, the Keller coursebook provides the smoke points of many different oils, with 120 pages of content. For the most part, in each course that we took, it is additional material that complements, not replicates, the video instruction.
In a really fun quarantine experience, we also got to “hang out” with Dominique Ansel in a MasterClass Live (ok, Zoom call) where he critiqued different student creations and offered personal advice. (His bread starters are named ‘Cher’ and ‘Beyonce,’ and he thinks everyone should stock up on a great banana bread recipe FYI.)
Not to say there wasn't some initial skepticism. In our past experience, from working alongside folks at the top of their field, we've noticed talent hasn't always necessarily translated into the ability to articulate the proper skills to someone else. It would be a a curious undertaking to see if most of the MasterClasses and, therefore, instructors would be up to the task.
To gauge the instructional quality, we reviewed three classes in different fields where we felt qualified enough and had sufficient experience to gauge the information presented. Now to get to the meat of it all!
Learning On Your Own
Like learning most things, it’s really important to practice and be unafraid of failing. Perhaps the most underrated skill of all time is simply the skill on how to learn something else.
MasterClass is a great resource for learning, but without active practice, it's simply a source of entertainment (which we also think it excels at!). A lack of accountability and structure is its greatest flaw.
If you're serious about putting these principles into play, set aside dedicated time to go through the lessons at a reasonable pace. Pen it up in Gcal! Better yet, get a pal in on it.3
One of the biggest things we can't emphasize enough is having a notebook and a pen on hand while going through the MasterClass videos. Printing out the coursebooks, if possible,4 and taking active notes will help reinforce some of these lessons.
36 video lessons (6h 53m)
Thomas Keller has won more Michelin stars than any chef in America. In his first online cooking class, the founder of The French Laundry and Per Se teaches you the underlying techniques of making great food so you can go beyond the cookbook. Learn how to confit vegetables, poach perfect eggs, make hand-shaped pasta, and bring Michelin star-quality meals to your kitchen.
In particular, this was the most compelling MasterClass. For the past decade, and even outside quarantine, cooking has been a serious past-time of ours. Core techniques like seasoning, kneading and emulsifying are already part of the personal repertoire. In our opinion, making fresh pasta isn’t an indulgence, it’s a prerequisite.
(There’s also 40 spices in the kitchen cabinet, an unhealthy obsession with Le Creuset and All-Clad cookware, and we will fully brag that we have cooked through Yotam Ottolenghi’s Nopi, a restaurant-level cookbook by the famed British-Israeli chef, to anyone that listens. Someone call the food snob police, hardcore.)
If Keller isn't able to blow your mind with the concept of universal lids, he might active further synapses about how to center a cutting board. From learning that salt and vinegar are flavor enhancers, and that pepper changes flavor, Keller really goes into the nitty gritty of confiting, pureeing, and, well, general cooking. (I will never look at a potato purée or mashed potatoes ever the same way again.)
He also goes into into concepts regarding the resistance of an ingredient (how easily it yields to a knife), and reminds the viewer, once again, to be mindful that throwing in a new ingredient lowers the cooking temperature of the pan.
Remember, “A Hollandaise sauce is basically a mayonnaise, but using hot, clarified butter.” Oh Keller, you had me at hollandaise.
Thomas Keller is clearly a master and expert at what he does. It’s nice to see someone that pro at what he does and be so down-to-earth simultaneously (kosher salt and canola oil are fine for the basics, though he does emphasize finishing salts and oils). He has a clear, almost meditative-like ability to not only convey the techniques, but to enlighten the reasons behind each technique and its effect on the ingredient.
Even for pasta, something we are already well acquainted with making by hand, there were two or three different modifications we will adapt for the next time we knead it.
Also, it is totally satisfying watching Thomas Keller toss a peeler behind into a sink, and declare it totally useless. The guy has a sense of humor, that's for sure.
18 video lessons (3h 4m)
As an FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss persuaded terrorists, bank robbers, and kidnappers to see things his way. Now he’s teaching you his field-tested strategies to help you in everyday negotiations, whether you’re aiming to improve your salary, the service you receive, or your relationships. Get stronger communication skills, game-changing insights into human nature, and more of what you want out of life.
Over a particularly quiet Thanksgiving, we had the fortune and time to read Chris Voss’ Never Split the Difference. As someone who is constantly negotiating deals and partnerships with individuals, companies, executives and investors, we found Voss’ approach to be the most relevant to our everyday experience.
(I once reviewed Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation and found it basic; human beings act far too irrationally to count on them to act logically.)
Part of what made this class interesting was the fact that we were already familiar with Voss' work and techniques. Did it elucidate anything new beyond what we already knew?
In terms of content, there was nothing particularly groundbreaking different from the book. However, it turns out that with negotiation, when people are dealing with words, tone, and body language, visual cues count for a lot. Seeing them in action also counts for a lot.
In particular, the most interesting video segments included the mock negotiations in which Voss engages with a paid actor. Seemingly simple on the outset, they require multiple viewings for the best comprehension. That is because the viewer must do two things at once (this really depends on how great you are at batch processing, but it's been proven time and time again that people are terrible multitaskers): 1) process the content that is being spoken, and 2) understand the techniques that are being used as the content is being delivered.
Moreso than the other classes, this MasterClass seemed to require more rigorous note-taking. That's even after having read the book, and putting some of those principles in practice for a few months already.
Though it may be "lighter" in content than some of the other courses, the material is slightly more complex to digest. In fact, in our opinion, it delivered the same kind of value that some of the more lauded MasterClasses did. (Hi, TK! You're so awesome.)
Negotiating is one of those more interesting human skills out there; in order to get better, it requires active practice with another human being.5 Generally, it's not hard to incorporate in a few off-hand chats with friends, and gradually increase them as the techniques become more comfortable and natural. Even in my time as a hospital volunteer, there are hours devoted to spent role-playing with "patients" before dealing with real emergency room situations.
But, as anyone who is generally skilled at these things can tell you, active listening is hard. It's probably one of the hardest skills out there, though it pays the highest dividends when it comes to relationships, friendships, business, and even hostage negotiation.
14 video lessons (3h 30m)
With little more than an idea and a drive to find her way, Sara Blakely went from selling fax machines door-to-door to becoming the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire in 2012. Now the inventor, entrepreneur, and founder of Spanx teaches you to open doors and close deals. Learn Sara’s customer-first approach and her tactics for prototyping, branding and building awareness, and bootstrapping your way to success.
This is the MasterClass we were the most skeptical about, particularly MasterClass leans toward the creative arts more than the hard sciences. Cooking translates extremely well through the camera, but it’s unclear how sales, Excel basics or logistical skills like coding translate through to the format.
For the past few years, Map Happy has been our full-time business. As anyone who is either a small business owner or startup founder can attest to, it’s more than a job and a half. Granted we haven’t hit Blakely or three comma status yet, but we have spoken at The New York Times Travel Show twice, and more than seven million readers have come through our doors since we started the shebang. For more than a few reasons, we were curious to see what Blakely had to say.
Though it seems to start off on a very aspirational and inspirational note—after all, what entrepreneurship journey isn't glorified?!—Blakely very much starts drilling down into core business principles. She's done it much like how we've done it: Using her sense of intuition, without an MBA, and by observing what happens in real life.
In fact, the section on selling seems to provide a nice cross-section and complementary point-of-view in conjunction with the Chris Voss MasterClass. Though we are not in the business of manufacturing our own products, I suspect there is a lot to be gleaned here for many commerce brands. In many ways, Spanx may have been the progenitor of current direct-to-consumer brands, a (business) generation ahead of its time.
Like the other instructors chosen, Sara Blakely delivers. In fact, it started feeling like my actual day-to-day work so much that I felt maybe it was time to take an actual break, and perhaps not go back to watching the videos! It's clear she also knows how to work the camera, given her background in comedic stand-up.
Either we happened to pick three different MasterClasses that delivered, or more likely, MasterClass has done a phenomenal job of keeping quality control in check. The MasterClass team seems to certainly know what they are doing, so we'll opt for the benefit of the doubt which we usually don't give in our other reviews. (I'm a bit pessimistic about the gardening one, but considering I just threw away my coriander plant, it might be worth a go?).
MasterClass, ranked, reviewed and rated.
Full stars! Besides making #toolsofrefinement our brand new hashtag, most of the people that I talked to felt that they learned a considerable amount of information from the MasterClasses.
MasterClass also offers its own app for different devices and platforms, making it 10 times easier to consume the content (in fact, it has replaced Netflix and HBO temporarily as the nighttime viewing platform of choice).
The only thing we weren't as keen on were was getting involved with the community, a seemingly basic offering to us. Plus, I happen to hate forums so I may be a bit biased there.
(The upside of participating in the community is the instructors do get directly involved at times, and there might be a higher chance of this now that everyone is huddled in their house during quarantine. Celebrities are not exempt from this condition.)
For the most part, the video production is superb, the talent is personable and knowledgeable, and the material is top-notch. Even if MasterClass plays in the background, it seems like its hard to escape without a new piece of information being gleaned each time. Our friend did concur, though, that without implementing active learning, something tough to do in an independent setting, MasterClass is "otherwise Netflix with slight instructions."
If anything, MasterClass is totally ripe for ample conversation fodder. No one can watch Love is Blind that many times.
Here are our actual thoughts, if you're interested, in its full form and glory.
Perhaps the most telling thing? Our pal offered this, mentioning she thought MasterClass was "superb, and really important right now [for our respective times]" while we both sat in our homes quarantined approximately 8,000 miles away apart. I inquired, asking further about what she meant, and she offered these four words to sum up MasterClass: "Inspiration, aspiration, stimulation, hope."
- This is highly suggested! There is nothing like having a running WhatsApp commentary on how TK, the artist formerly known as Thomas Keller, is the dream husband. ↩
- Though renewing MasterClass year in and year out is an expensive proposition, the all-access pass is a fantastic strategy to figure out which classes are worth the lifetime price. ↩
- It is convenient there's a 2-for-1 deal, yeah? ↩
- Too bad all of our offices are closed now!! ↩
- In this case, having a friend to share MasterClass with helps! ↩