At this week’s James Beard Awards, chefs and restaurateurs filtered on and off the stage at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, announcing winners and accepting awards. The audience heard Rising Star Chef Kwame Onwuachi acknowledge his ancestors, Young Joni chef Ann Kim reflected on her early career goals as she accepted the award for Best Chef: Midwest, and the night’s host, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, wondered aloud whether a Mario Batali joke was “too soon.” But with each award, there was one constant voice: the one that clearly announced the names of the nominees. In fact, it’s been a constant for more than a decade now, and the human person behind that resonant voice is actress Alyssa Bresnahan.
Bresnahan is currently appearing alongside Bryan Cranston in the Broadway show Network, but in April, as she’s done every year now, she sat in a recording booth with James Beard Award producers and read out the names of every single James Beard Award nominee, for both the chef awards and the media awards, which were doled out last month. “She has the most stage time of anybody that night,” says the show’s associate producer Kristin Madden. “Nobody has met her, but they know her voice.”
Madden has met Bresnahan. For years now, she has provided Bresnahan with the list of the nominee names and their phonetic pronunciations, so that when Bresnahan gets in the booth she can easily reel them off with the gravitas Beard Award watchers have come to expect. The whole process takes around four hours, but it’s meant to save time on awards night. Although Monday night’s ceremony stretched past 10 p.m. EST, “We try to keep the taping of the show brisk,” Madden says. “There’s a lot of awards to give out and you’re always trying to move it along. Having this voiceover element helps the pacing of the show.”
Eater caught up with Bresnahan to chat about what it’s like to be an unsung hero of hospitality’s biggest night. (And for those who value correct pronunciation as much as she does, note it’s pronounced “Aleesa.”)
Monica Burton: So you’re an actress?
Alyssa Bresnahan: I am an actress by trade. I came to New York in ’86 and then graduated from NYU in ’90, and since then have been doing whatever comes my way, stage, film, television. My bread and butter for years was audiobooks. When I graduated from college, it kept me from having to waitress. That was my go-to job. It keeps the bills paid.
[I was cast for the James Beard Awards] the year that I was pregnant with my daughter; that’s how I know how long I’ve been doing it, because it was a particular time in my life. And then it’s been a regular lovely thing that happens. I always know it’s April. We usually record in April but [the ceremony is] always in May, right?
MB: Yes! The first week of May. How does the recording go?
AB: It’s always a fun time. I know nothing about restaurants. I love restaurants and I love food, but I’m not a foodie, and I’m not a chef by any means. And I have a terrible memory, so I’m always trying to put in my brain, “I have to remember this restaurant. I’ve got to go.” And by the time I get home, I’ve forgotten most of them.
But I do remember I did a show last year, a play, called Napoli, Brooklyn, at the Roundabout Theatre, and for the show I had to interview [Lidia Bastianich] at one of her restaurants — Lidia Bastianich, who has won many James Beard Awards — and I was like, “I know you; I actually know you.” So that was a highlight. That was exciting.
It’s always fun for me to step into this world and celebrate it from a distance.
MB: So how do you figure out what the right pronunciations are for various restaurants or chef’s names?
AB: Oh, I don’t do any of that. Kristin usually has all the pronunciations. And that is the hardest part. I have an affinity for accents. My mother is of Mexican descent, and I spent time in Europe, so I can roll my R’s and do a little French thing if need be. But on the day, it’s the script with everybody’s name, and I hope we get it right. I hope nobody’s offended. But they’re all phonetically written out, and it’s a team effort to make sure. If there’s a question, somebody Googles or calls somebody and says, “Are we sure it’s pronounced in this way?” And then sometimes we do a couple of variations just to be sure. If it’s discovered if it’s one way or the other. But that is not my department. I really am just a voice.
MB: Do you remember any particularly tricky restaurant or chef name pronunciations that you’ve had to learn?
AB: Oh gosh, no. But I know Momofuku. And I know — oh geez. I’m not going to remember. If I saw them again, I would know. But every year, I’m like, “I remember this one. I remember this guy. They’re back and it’s great.” But no, I’m sorry.
MB: Where does your voice come from?
AB: My father was a singer and he had a very, very large voice. He was one of these people that you knew he was in the room, or in the building, because it’s how he sounded. I think I inherited that. So when I say, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the James Beard Awards,” I always feel like him. That’s been in my blood.
People will say, “Where are you from?” Because they can’t quite place my accent or whatever it is. I’m originally from Boston and my father was from Boston. He was the guy on the other side of the tracks, they called them “lace curtain Irish.” It’s a class, because Boston was very racist and very classist. Your accent really spoke to what your background was, and so my father, if he had any kind of an accent that was recognizable, that was really not good. I think that’s why I consciously speak [like this], because that’s what I inherited. At this stage, because I’m 52, I’m glad that my voice has found some little home.
MB: How much of your work is voiceover at this point in your career?
AB: I have for years and years worked for Recorded Books, Incorporated. They have been very good to me, and I have at the moment like three or four series that I’m in the middle of. They’ve always got something for me to read, which is great. And then I have other, different companies that will call once in a while, and I’ll do something with another production house.
So that, thank God, has been regular for decades now. The last time I was on Broadway was War Horse. For two years I did that show. And then I did a couple of films. I had an accident before [my daughter] was born. My dog bit my lip off, and so for a couple of years, it slowed all my camera work down. But it’s healed now and I don’t think about it anymore, so my on-camera work has been more [frequent], which is great.
MB: Is being the voice of the James Beard Awards one of the odder gigs you’ve gotten?
AB: In commercial voiceover, a direction that you always get is to sound conversational, and to sound natural and like you’re not selling anything. Announcing the James Beard Awards is the complete opposite. You don’t have to worry about trying to sound casual or like you’re talking to your neighbor. You’re announcing the James Beard Awards. To me that’s a real freedom, because I do have a big voice. It’s up my alley, I guess is what I’m saying.
It is not your usual voice gig, that’s true. But it’s great, and the fact that you’re actually interviewing me about it — it’s fun, I’m really honored and tickled.
MB: Is there anything else you think it’ll be fun for people to know about the person behind the voice?
AB: I guess what is so weird or funny to me is that, last year, for example, I went to the James Beard House and I met somebody who was on the committee, and I said hello. And they said, “Oh I know you.” It was very, really odd.
When we do the recording, it’s this great day, and we spend four or five hours together. It’s fun, and I’m in the booth having my own gala event. Nobody’s there, but I’m busting a gut congratulating everybody, then of course people hear that [later]. It’s funny that it’s a completely separate time. It’s funny, it’s great.