Travis Talbot’s career was speeding on a trajectory that only his mother could see spelled trouble. He was a nightlife king of Canada, jetting off to Vegas on a moment’s notice while running dozens of clubs and bars and expanding into luxurious vacation resorts.
Then, when he was 28, he visited his mother, who was dying from cancer.
“She told me that my fast rise was really me careening out of control,” he says. And she gave him some advice: If you’re in the service industry, be of service to people.
“It was pretty sobering,” Talbot says.
Fast-forward about a decade and Talbot, now 40, is organizing one of the biggest fund-raising efforts to come out of the Boston Marathon bombing, Boston Bites Back, to be held Wednesday. A charitable dining event conceived by two of Boston’s highest-profile chefs, Ming Tsai and Ken Oringer, it has the goal of raising $1 million for the One Fund for bombing victims.
Talbot, a restaurant and nightlife consultant who never graduated college and has no Boston roots, might seem like an odd pick by Tsai and Oringer to pull together a huge event so quickly.
But in a matter of days, Talbot built a website promoting and selling tickets, helped secure Fenway Park as the venue — the Red Sox agreed to host the event — and persuaded 100 top chefs and dozens of vendors to donate food, drink, and cooking services.
Corporate donation pledges are coming from all corners of the city and beyond.
The event will feature the 100 chefs cooking and serving diners at Fenway, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. With Talbot’s help, Tsai and Oringer hope to get 5,000 people to spring for the $200 general admission tickets (as well as $100 tickets for after-8 p.m. access, and $1,000 tickets for VIP treatment), in exchange for all the food and drink they can consume.
Talbot, almost pleading for people to come, says in one e-mail that you get access to “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark” and samples from Boston’s best chefs, all “for the price of one evening of dinner and a movie.” Free tickets are available for Boston-area first responders, such as firefighters, police officers, and EMTs. Guests will be permitted in the EMC Club level for VIP ticket holders, the Big Concourse, Budweiser Deck, and the warning track, but not on the field proper.
It’s the kind of marketing push Tsai and Oringer wanted from Talbot, a trained chef as well, whose cooking alter-ego is “T-Bone Talbot.”
“Everyone is always impressed with what he’s done in nightlife, in hospitality, but people are just now starting to figure out what he can do for a good cause,” Tsai says. “And it’s all because of what he did and what he learned when he left that life behind. Ask him about it. It’s crazy.”
Talbot, who grew up in Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, and now lives in Boston’s North End, jokes that he’s a “lifer” in the hospitality business because since age 9 he has viewed it as a calling.
“Seriously, my mom and I worked in venues together, bars and restaurants. She worked in management. After school when I was a kid I’d pass out fliers,” he says.
By 15 he was tending bar into the wee hours of the morning, Talbot says. It was the first of his many nightlife adventures — a gig that made him popular with peers, but unpopular with school administrators because he came to class each morning smelling of booze and feeling scrappy. “I wasn’t drinking, but just working around all that stuff you pick up the smells,” he says. “And so that, combined with my fighting and whatnot, got me an early invitation to exit school, shall we say.”
He got his GED later, but by 18 Talbot was managing his own bar, and shortly after he and good friend Chuck Johnston were on their way to Calgary to tend bar and work security at the Electric Avenue club, just in time for the 1988 Winter Olympics.
“Those were wild times,” Johnston, a real estate developer in Calgary, says. “We lived a rock star life, and Travis was the rock star in the equation. Work hard, party hard, plenty of antics, plenty of skirmishes, and the scars to show for it.”
Johnston recalls the two of them being treated like stars by the celebrities who asked to be invited to Talbot’s nightclub parties.
Talbot’s mother’s intervention finally started to slow him down. In May 2007, living back in Canada, Talbot walked away from it all.
“I had to,” he says. “It was time.”
He says that he sold his cars, emptied his bank accounts, and gave the money to charities in Calgary and Vancouver. Then after setting up a website so family and friends could keep track of his “Goodwill Travels Tour,” Talbot packed what was left of his things — a couple changes of clothes, a laptop, a cellphone — and hit the road, traveling by foot, bus, and hitchhiking.
For several years, he criss crossed Canada and the United States doing volunteer work and taking odd jobs to make ends meet. There were the senior center fund-raisers, the horse rescue farm, the clean-up crews for hoarder houses, the grim alleys where he lived with runaway teenagers while trying to find government assistance and housing for them.
“I was literally living hand-to-mouth,” Talbot says. “But I felt better than I ever had because all I got out of it was the satisfaction that maybe I left some person or group better off than when I met them.”
As his five-year wanderlust was coming to an end, a friend in Boston asked Talbot to visit and meet her husband.
“We met and became the best of friends,” the husband, John Childs, owner of Building Restoration Services, says.
Childs persuaded Talbot to move to Boston to help his construction firm also become a formidable charity.
In early 2012, Talbot, who is single, moved back and established “BRS Cares,” the firm’s charitable foundation, along with Project Goodwill, his one-man charity consultancy.
“Everyone talks about giving back,” Childs says. “It just seemed like Travis was the man, because he stopped talking and spent five years of his life doing nothing but giving. And he had this knack for organizing that was unbelievable. The combination of his skill sets is, well, unique.”
For all the good he has tried to do, Talbot says, Boston Bites Back is arguably the most important charitable effort he has been a part of.
“It’s all important, but this is a chance to gather a lot of people — thousands of people — in one place at one time and in one fell swoop raise a significant sum to help people who’ve recently suffered tremendously here in our town,” he says. “Nightlife is what I did. It was great. But this is what I do.”