For Denny Santiago, Executive Chef of Union League Liberty Hill, food has always been synonymous with family.
Growing up in a Puerto Rican household in Philadelphia, “food would just appear,” he recalls. Especially around the holidays, “the house permeated with all these beautiful aromas: morcilla, chicharrones de cerdo, pasteles, arroz con gandules,” he says. “Everyone would be cooking and enjoying one another’s company.”
Camaraderie and hospitality have become enduring themes in Santiago’s accomplished career, which reached its pinnacle last year with the debut of the Union League’s latest restaurant, Marquis by Denny Santiago.
“It’s a way to honor my family,” says Santiago. “At the heart of Marquis, we want [members] to feel at home.”
A Dining Destination
The Union League of Philadelphia acquired Union League Liberty Hill in 2021. The purchase of the formerly public course and clubhouse further expanded the club’s facilities beyond its flagship downtown Philadelphia location.
Today, the League offers its 4,200 members an array of amenities across five companion properties: The Bungalow, The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale, The Union League Guard House, Union League National Golf Club, and Union League Liberty Hill. Martin Hamann serves as the the League’s Executive Chef, overseeing the club’s entire culinary operation and team. He and Santiago have worked together for 30 years now.
After culinary school, Santiago secured a job at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, a move that, as he puts it, “changed the trajectory of my career.”
There, he worked under Hamann, as well as Tony Clark and renowned French chef Jean-Marie Lacroix. Each of these chefs played an instrumental role in Santiago’s career.
“The Four Seasons was a no-nonsense place,” he says. “There was a level of perfection [expected]. It was very, very challenging. I remember saying I would be there about a year; fifteen years later, I was a sous chef running one of the restaurants.”
In 2008, Hamann left the Four Seasons to join the Union League and open a restaurant under his own name: 1862 by Martin Hamann. Eight months later, Santiago joined him as Executive Sous Chef.
“[Hamann] put the Union League’s culinary program on the map,” says Santiago. “I jumped at the opportunity to work with him again.”
Dozens of other culinary staff members left the Four Seasons for the Union League, says Santiago. “It wasn’t that we were calling people; they were calling us,” he clarifies. “They were calling him.”
“We always say [Hamann] is like the godfather of the kitchen,” says Katie Sacchetta, the Union League’s Executive Food and Beverage Director. “There’s a distinct difference between eating and dining. He took us to that next level: a dining destination.”
When the League purchased Liberty Hill, Santiago and Executive Sous Chef Jim Gallagher were asked to run the culinary operation and open a brand-new restaurant.
By this point, Santiago had worked at the League close to 15 years, helping to facilitate the opening of multiple restaurants and amenities across a number of locations. As the only other restaurant with a chef’s name attached to it, Marquis set the tone for the level of quality and service members could expect.
“It was time for [Santiago] to put his name out there,” says Hamann, just as he’d done with 1862. “That’s what the whole industry is about—at least for me now. I want people to grow, knowing that when I leave the Union League, it’s going to be in good standing. … [Santiago] and [Gallagher] are dynamite chefs. I told them to be themselves.”
Just as Hamann offered Santiago the opportunity to help remodel the League House kitchen years prior, Santiago asked that Gallagher work with him to design Marquis’ kitchen.
“It was important to him that I was involved,” says Gallagher. “We built this restaurant—[paying attention to] every detail. That experience was incredibly valuable.”
Gallagher, too, is a Philadelphia native and a Four Seasons alum. Sacchetta likens them to brothers.
“Ever since I’ve known him, from the Four Seasons in 1992, he’s been my boss, my chef,” says Gallagher. “That said, he’s family to me. … When I interview young [chefs], I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve [known] this guy for 30 years.’ To me, that carries weight. There’s a lot of trust that can only exist after that many years.”
Santiago and Gallagher agree on most things. When it comes to hiring and training new staff, they both say the most important factors are not skill nor experience but attitude, kindness, and a willingness to learn and to pass that information on.
“I think that’s the secret sauce,” says Gallagher. “I’m going to give everything I possibly can to you that was given to me freely. Ultimately, we’re building something bigger than any one of us.”
Caviar and Camaraderie
Marquis by Denny Santiago is the League’s most modern dining venue, its open kitchen a perfect metaphor for the chefs’ leadership style and sense of hospitality. When members walk into Marquis, they’re immediately greeted by Santiago and team who are experts at balancing a strict standard of culinary excellence with a certain sense of camaraderie and humor.
Menus change four or five times a year, plus specials. The cuisine is contemporary—creative takes on meats and seafood, handmade pastas, plus handcrafted cocktails and an impressive pastry program, all of which center around fresh, seasonal ingredients.
“Some chefs start with the protein and work around that,” says Santiago. “We hyper-focus on the seasonal produce. We talk to our purveyors to see what’s fresh and trending, then we write menus around those items.”
Heirloom tomatoes and watermelon were among the stars this summer.
“We have a jumbo lump crab cake on the menu with heirloom tomatoes and an herb crust,” says Santiago. “We also offer Atlantic halibut with fresh corn, a little potato, and an espuma on top. There’s a burrata salad with compressed melon and a watermelon consommé (pictured below) that we pour inside, [garnished] with a drizzle of basil oil that floats on top.”
The menu layout includes a section designed for sharing and sparking conversations, says Santiago. “Our 32-ounce veal chop is presented on a guéridon and carved tableside. Our namesake dish, The Grand Marquis, is a seafood tower. Depending on the time of year, it might feature a tartare, crudo, or ceviche, accompanied by a tin of Royal Daurenki caviar.”
The League’s members have sophisticated palates, Santiago notes, so each dish is meticulously considered from every angle to provide the highest quality and most imaginative presentations and flavors.
“We have a smashburger on the menu,” Santiago says, as an example, “and it’s dynamite. The meat and cheese are exceptional quality, we make our own sauce and pickles. The buns are made in-house, too.”
In fact, all of Liberty Hill’s breads are made in-house. The pastry team, led by Executive Pastry Chef Robert Bennett, produces six types of bread, including a Japanese milk bread with acacia honey for the table.
Bennett joined the Union League two years ago, after an impressive 14-year run as the Executive Pastry Chef of Le Bec-Fin, a renowned Philadelphia institution under the helm of esteemed French Chef Georges Perrier.
A nod to Le Bec-Fin is Marquis’ miniature dessert cart, named Avery Ann’s Cart after Bennett’s first granddaughter.
“Again, I wanted this restaurant to pay homage to our families,” adds Santiago. “The chef presents each item from the cart at the table, and members are truly ‘wowed.’”
This fall, Marquis will unveil a new addition to the dining experience named after Santiago’s daughter. The dessert—“Sweet Juliet”—features a series of signature petit fours and mignardise known as “Hidden Jules.”
On the dessert cart, Bennett offers a wide range of textures and flavors for any palate: citrus, chocolate, nuts, crunch, frozen, and fruit. “We always have a cheesecake of some sort because it’s relatable,” he says. “And because we’re in the States, there’s always something with peanut butter.”
Since its start, Marquis has experimented with plated desserts, but “they sort of fall by the wayside,” Bennett notes. “They want the cart.”
But, he adds casually, “we also make soufflés, jams—I like to pick my own fruit—chocolates, gelato and sorbet, two kinds of puff pastry—I personally love variety.”
A Five-Star Resort Club
The next venture for The Union League of Philadelphia is its eagerly anticipated tenth restaurant, scheduled to open by the end of the year at the League House.
This indoor-outdoor rooftop spot, christened ‘Trumbauer’ in honor of an influential early 20th-century American architect and League member, promises 150 seats and panoramic city views, with wood- and coal-burning ovens and grills.
At the Liberty Hill location, “the sky’s the limit,” says Sean Palmer, the League’s Director of Golf and Liberty Hill’s General Manager.
“Within the next year, we plan to expand our ballroom,” he says. “In about three years, we’ll embark on a major project: a fitness facility with indoor-outdoor aquatics. Beyond that, we’re looking to bring some big golf events to the facility.”
Santiago aims to redesign the banquet kitchen at Liberty Hill and create a studio kitchen space for both savory and sweet demonstrations.
“[Bennett] could host baking classes,” says Santiago. “I’ve always envisioned Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory; I want to create a space where members can see him working with sugar and chocolate.”
“I never would’ve thought that I would have a restaurant with my name on it,” adds Santiago, reflecting on the past year. “Liberty Hill is evolving so quickly. … I’m proud to be part of something great—and to have the opportunity to bring other chefs along for the ride.”