The Rockford has become one of Raleigh’s restaurant institutions, having been open on and off now for over 20 years. Despite its reputation, it hasn’t been immune from its own share of ups and downs. Cue Chef Howard McDonald. Chef Howard has been changing things up at the Rockford since July of this year. Initially hired as a general manager, he has since expanded his efforts to developing, updating and implementing new menu items. Rockford veterans, however, shouldn’t be afraid, as they’re keeping two staples from the original menu; the A.B.C. (apple bacon cheddar) and the Rockford Cheese Steak.
Hailing from Amelia Island, Florida, Chef Howard McDonald studied hospitality at Florida State University. He grew up working on charter boats fishing and eventually finding his way into the kitchen preparing his daily catch at local restaurants. Chef credits his college roommate and future business partner, Dave Domboru, as being his inspiration to move from working front of the house to getting behind the line. Dave’s “big” sense of flavor and incredible palette were “in your face” and motivating. Chef Howard emulates that style of cooking today, wishing to “get creative with big flavors” and stand behind dishes he can be proud of.
For 14 years, Chef Howard worked in Chapel Hill as the owner and operator of East End Oyster & Martini Bar along with a few other entertainment venues. He continued to develop and grow his passion for constructing great food over the years working in Chapel Hill. He credits these years of experience with helping him move on to his new venture at The Rockford.
The love for fresh, quality ingredients runs in the family, as Chef Howard’s father-in-law is a commercial fisherman. Chef Howard regularly drives to meet his father-in-law in Goldsboro, the halfway point between here and the coast, to pick up his latest seasonal ocean offerings. Chef Howard also drives to farms in the surrounding areas to acquire all of the produce used in the Rockford. These trips are just two incidents that speak volumes about his dedication to implementing locally sourced ingredients from folks who are working hard to create and provide high quality products.
Currently, the Rockford is working on building a solid lunch and dinner crowd before furthering its goal of eventually implementing menus that change at each meal service. As Chef Howard is still only 3 months into his tenure at the Rockford, plans to incorporate new kitchen equipment and expand the menu are on the horizon. Chef Howard stresses despite these upgrades, they will continue to maintain the standard of quality he holds for himself and the staff. He lives by the motto, always asks “Why not? The right way isn’t always the easiest, but we have to be 100% proud of what we’re doing.”
The Rockford’s imaginative culinary cocktails are another thing all together. Chef Howard brings along front of the house maven and colleague from his Chapel Hill years, Matt Jednak. Matt is spearheading the charge on creating culinary cocktails for the restaurant. Chef Howard and Matt clearly have a strong working relationship and open dialogue when it comes to working together to develop imaginative food and bar menu items. Matt shares Howard’s passion for food and hospitality, evident from the way his eyes light up when explaining their vision on how to transform the Rockford into an American Bistro where people can “enjoy a great meal and hang out.”
Chef Howard’s attention to detail is apparent, proving no element is too small. Despite the condensed area in which the Rockford occupies, there is complete efficiency in their operation. All items are made in-house, with the exception of one or two items outsourced to local venues. (Spoiler alert: Even their amazingly delicious vanilla extract is made in house. I mean, who does this?! This little ingredient makes a huge difference and only means the bread pudding at the Rockford Food Adventure Dinner is going to be that much more amazing.) The Rockford has a small terrace as of now serving dual purpose; home to three dining tables and an abbreviated rooftop garden. Basil and peppers are growing right now; both having homes in multiple areas of the food and cocktail menus.
Chef Howard, Matt and the rest of the staff are ready to revive everyone’s concept of the Rockford. When prompted about the Rockford’s reputation, Matt expands to include, “The Rockford has evolved and is relevant. We’re progressive without being pretentious. We take our food seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.” It’s evident these guys are incredibly passionate about putting out not only great food and libations, but creating a complete sense of warmth and hospitality within their restaurant. They maintain the idea of striving to create a full sensory experience for diners in the hopes of establishing an American Bistro feel.
Tessa Nguyen is a chef and registered dietitian working in the Triangle area. She is an alumna of Johnson & Wales University and Meredith College. When Tessa isn’t traveling and discovering new food spots, she teaches culinary nutrition cooking classes at Duke and works as a consultant in the health and wellness industry. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter @