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Josef Martin Walch & Natascha Walch
Worldly and Local

001 Rote Wand Walch Portrait Header
  • Words Ken Baron
  • Images Robert Rieger

It may seem as if Josef Walch had his life’s path mapped out for him from an early age. His parents owned a famous restaurant/guesthouse in the idyllic Alpine village of Zug am Arlberg, Austria, just a 20-minute walk from the town center of Lech, where he would meet his future wife and now Rote Wand partner, Natascha.

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 an award-winning chef recruited straight out of one of the top restaurants in New York.

002 Rote Wand Walch Painting
003 Rote Wand Walch Landscape

How did you get international star chef Max Natmessnig to move from a top New York City restaurant to the little village of Lech?

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!

004 Rote Wand Walch Restaurant Service
005 Rote Wand Walch Exterior Schulhaus
006 Rote Wand Walch Icicles
007 Rote Wand Walch Stuben Dining

Some might say that fondue and traditional local fare were fine as is. Why the innovation?

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.

008 Rote Wand Walch Restaurant Stuben

Rote Wand Stuben mixes local, organic cuisine with nostalgia-rich fondue

009 Rote Wand Walch Nature Winter
010 Rote Wand Walch Interior Room

The design team at Dietrich | Untertrifaller Architects blends a contemporary aesthetic with a traditional Alpine look

How did the locals respond to the change?

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, with Max here, it all worked out perfectly.

 

Besides the schoolhouse, how else are you reshaping and advancing Rote Wand?

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!

011 Rote Wand Natascha Walch Clothing

“The local craftspeople share the spotlight here.”

012 Rote Wand Walch Dress

Ok, Let’s go back to the old party days at Sennkessel, the inn’s cellar bar and disco.

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!

 

But the Rote Wand Stuben has a great history too, right?

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.

 

Growing up at a guesthouse must have been an interesting experience.

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.

013 Rote Wand Josef Martin Walch Elmer Schneider

Fresh dairy and meat come from a neighboring farmer and childhood friend of Josef Walch

014 Rote Wand Farming Cattle

So you are still close with the people you grew up with in Lech?

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!

 

Natascha, you are also closely connected to the villagers here?

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.

You also had a hand in the hotel’s interiors, right?

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.

 

Do locals contribute to Rote Wand in other ways?

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.

016 Rote Wand Walch Office

Images of generations of happy guests, friends, and family serve as souvenirs in the Walchs’ office

017 Rote Wand Magdalena Josef Martin Natascha Walch

Family Affair: The Walchs’ daughter Magdalena serves as the hotel’s marketing expert

Speaking of tradition, your children are also a part of Rote Wand, right?

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.

 

Describe your perfect day.

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!

“We spend time walking the woods, in nature. It clears your brain. And it’s also healthy.”

The outdoors is a big part of life in Lech. Yours too?

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!”

019 Rote Wand Natascha Walch Dog

The Walchs' dog Alma, a Hungarian Vizsla, loves to model for photos

020 Rote Wand Walch Kitchen

Josef Walch, Sr., introduced the hotel's legendary fondue to the village more than 60 years ago

021 Rote Wand Walch Interior Frames

History and tradition are woven into the fabric of the hotel's design

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