The inn attracted European royalty and celebrities who came to this picture-postcard destination for the slopes, skiing lessons with Walch’s father, and for his mother’s renowned fondue. When the A-listers were not around, the place was the setting for boisterous parties among Lech locals that went long into the night. But Walch was keen to broaden his perspectives; so when he came of age, he went to study in Salzburg, then on to Switzerland, and then he opened a very successful catering business, all with an eye on becoming a politician in Vienna. “When Joschi was 25, his parents spoke to him,” Natascha says of an early major crossroad on her husband’s life map. “They wanted him to take over the guesthouse.” And that’s when Walch decided to rewrite the map instead of following it. Using worldly knowledge and a cultural and culinary sophistication that he picked up from his travels—combined with Natascha’s keen instincts for design—he has gone on to turn a small restaurant into Rote Wand Gourmet Hotel, a world-class hotel with a chef who has worked at top restaurants in New York, Vienna, and Denmark.
Josef Walch: It was an interesting story. Natascha and I were eating at the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, which is maybe the city’s top restaurant. We were sitting there and started talking to Max, who is also Austrian, about food and Austria from a culinary perspective. I mentioned how our country spends so much money on hospitality schools and apprenticeships, and then the people we train leave for other lands. And I thought that if someone would ever come back to Austria, someone of his standing, it could really change things. And Max said, “Well, I might if it were the right place.”
Natascha Walch: A few months later, Max visited us and our Rote Wand Chef’s Table—half a year later, he was here!
JW: Well, the fondue is still here because it’s a part of the original inn’s history, but so much else has changed. And the reason is twofold: Natascha and I understood that when people are on holidays, they don’t just want good food but an international sense of place as seen through a local lens. Which leads to the other reason behind the innovation: We were traveling a lot—in 2011 and 2012 and 2013, we went to the States and the Nordic countries—and we saw that top, contemporary restaurants all have a strong local push and presentation, but with a worldly sophistication. They are very detailed.
NW: And that detail is part of the dining experience. Whether they are showcasing fresh fish sourced from the waters of Lake Constance, vegetables grown in Voralberg, or nonalcoholic beverages flavored with sorrel and buttermilk, the kitchen team wants to share its appreciation for provenance and quality before guests begin to eat. They might explain, for example, that the chimichurri was prepared with herbs grown in the on-site garden, or that the mountain trout dressed with horseradish, meringue, and red radish is from Fischteich Lech in nearby Zug am Arlberg and was personally delivered that day by the owner.
JW:The international guests got it right away. But the people in Lech were not used to this concept and they were confused. But then, of course, first with Max and now with Julian here, it has all worked out perfectly.
JW: Originally, it was just an inn and a farm with horses. My father used to pick up guests in a horse-drawn sleigh and bring them to the inn for a fondue. When I took over in 1987, Natascha and I started to develop it. We renovated the guesthouse, which is now the main part of the hotel. We added two additional houses, a pool, nine saunas, relaxation areas, and family lodges. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger!
JW: We had some crazy times. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, all the young people who lived here met in the bar. Today, you would call it a dating platform!
JW: Yes, so many celebrities came. Every Easter, Prince Rainer III of Monaco and his wife Grace Kelly would come with their children, Stephanie and Caroline—the entire family. They went to the town church, took nature walks, enjoyed the fondue. And Charles and Diana were often here. They’d helicopter in for skiing and for the fondue. Charles would always take his ski boots off and walk around in his socks and talk to all the other guests, especially the Brits.
JW: Yes, you learn that your parents don’t have the time to be with you that other parents might have. But on the other hand, they are always there. You grow up helping and working—on the farm, in the kitchen, wherever. But my siblings and I had a great time there, too, especially between seasons. It was fantastic for us then because the place was totally empty and was our funhouse. The bar was our playground! We had big parties; we played music. Hey, you live here in a village in the mountains, there’s nothing. So we had the bar. We opened it for ourselves. When you are 16 years old, it’s fantastic. You make lifelong friends. Many are still here. It’s life.
JW: Many, yes. Like our neighbor Elmar Schneider. We went to school together. We had a farm. They had a farm. Today, we buy all the milk and beef for the hotel from the neighboring farm. We buy the whole cow! Elmar’s a fantastic person. He doesn’t talk a lot, but he used to be a world-class skier and teacher, a 1A which is the top rating. Just incredible physical condition. And guests liked him because he was skiing, not talking!
NW: Yes, when I was sourcing all the uniforms and outfits for the staff, I turned to a local shop. Sonia, who runs it, is from Lech. I’m from Bludenz, which is about 40 minutes from Lech. When I first met Sonia Zimmermann, she was doing decoration with flowers and pots, but she always wanted to be a clothing designer. I really liked her stuff. She uses local material and works with area craftspeople. Her clothing is now worn by our staff throughout the hotel.
NW: Joschi worked a lot with our architect Dietrich | Untertrifaller. But yes, I did a lot of research about chairs and tables, and I would tell Joschi what I like, and they did it.
JW: Natascha has a great eye for details, and she has the talent to inspire me to do things much better than if I did them on my own. I know how a room should look, but Natascha asks the important questions, the ones that make you go much deeper. We worked closely with the architect and designer. Natascha is passionate and that gets the best out of everyone.
JW: Yes, area craftspeople share the spotlight here. The tableware and furniture in the dining room are largely a product of their handiwork. These pieces organically complement the cooking while taking guests even deeper into the surroundings and the tradition.
NW: Our daughter Magdalena is responsible for all the marketing and social media. She studied in Vienna, but of course she knows us, knows the house, knows what we want. Everyone is happy. And she knows what she wants, too. She also tells us what to do!
JW: Our two sons are in Vienna. Josef Martin is studying hospitality, and Valentin, who went to hospitality school, is now doing publicity and marketing.
NW: We would love it if they come work here, but if they don’t want to, they don’t have to.
JW: I get up in the morning and laugh all day. That means I’m on holiday and it’s a good holiday. Or it means everything is running smoothly at the hotel.
NW: And everybody is happy.
JW: Yes, and everybody is happy!
JW: Oh yes. We spend time walking in the woods, in nature. It clears your brain. And it’s also healthy. And if you walk here in summer, you can smell the herbs and literally taste the nature.
NW: Yes, you can eat as you walk.
JW: I have been here almost my entire life, but when I am walking with Natascha, she shows me things I didn’t even know we had like, yes, the herbs that we stop to eat. She is much more knowledgeable about those things than me. She points and explains something to me, and I think, “Wow I never knew that!”