FOR MORE than 20 years, Jacques Vivien has been astonishing friends with his flair for clothing, cars and coming trends. He was the maitre d' who guided the Jockey Club to its first popularity, opened Whiskey-A-Go-Go to set off the local discotheque trend and began Maison des Crepes, bringing Georgetown its first French speciality restaurant.
To be distinctive it is necessary to know your own taste and have confidence in it, so it should come as no surprise that Jacques Vivien follows his own drummer to the kitchen and dining table. One great influences on what he terms a "ridiculously simple" style of eating is the Chesapeake Bay, where he and his wife, Colette, have a cozy home in Mayo Beach at the mouth of the South River. Another is the barbecue grill.
Vivien loves to roast meat, a thick cut of rib-eye or a leg of lamb. He sears the meat over a driftwood fire and cooks it quickly over the highest heat possible. The cooking times he mentions, half an hour for a leg of lamb for example, may seem incredibly short, but like many French natives he thinks any cut beyond the rare stage is hopelessly overdone.
Another Vivien hobby is fishing, so at the Bay hardly a meal is served that doesn't include something he has brought home from the sea, usually only a few hours before. One evening recently a quartet of quests demolished a huge pile of steamed hardshell crabs before being served perch fillets that had been sauteed with lime juice and green peppercorns, grill-roasted corn, lots of crisp white wine and a pair of freshly baked fruit tartes. There was bread, of course, a tasty sourdough. "Do you like it?" Jacques Vivien asked with a grin. "We do, too. It comes from the Safeway."
Only an angry Mother Nature can force the Viviens to dine indoors, so the setting was a canop-covered porch overlooking the bay. The barbecue glowed only a few feet away and taped music -- American jazz and antique French pop songs -- Layed in the background. Vivien is a compulsive collector of knick-knacks, so the setting was cluttered: hammocks, a dart board, two pet birds and much more caught the eye.
"I've done a full circle," he said. "I made a net that I use to drag for grass shrimp. Then I use the shrimp for bait to catch perch and pan-size rockfish. I keep the fish heads and put them in pots as bait for crabs."
Colette Vivien, a truly talented pastrymaker, usually boils the crabs and handles other stove-top cooking. She did the perch while he grilled the corn. Her tartes -- one of yellow plums, the other of apples -- had been made that afternoon. Coffee, strong and very good, came later. "Down here almost nothing is made ahead," she said. "We don't serve the kind of meals where you do fancy things."
If informality is one rule of the Vivien household, another is freshness.
"I'd rather eat things I don't find in winter," Colette Vivien said, fresh vegetables and fruits.We don't eat much fish in town during the winter, but out here we eat meat maybe only once a week. There is a farm only a mile away. It's amazing the difference in quality and it is so cheap. We buy corn, onions, potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, melons -- everything you basically need except herbs. People here don't use herbs, so I grow my own. And I have to bring my own fresh garlic from town, and sea salt."
"I have not become a vegetarian," Jacques Vivien said, "absolutely not. I still eat in a very Rabelaisian manner, but I eat as tastefully and simply as possible by using very fresh ingredients cooked in the most intelligent manner."
That means cooking fish and vegetables as well as meat for a much shorter time than most Americans do, making sure salads are crisp, using lime juice to "cook" fresh perch, roasting instead of boiling corn, making luncheon pizza-style vegetables tartes for guests instead of rich quiche and letting fruit ripen fully. "If you cannot play golf with a peach, it is over-ripe," said Colette Vivien, laughing. "We get marvelous buys on local fruit they think is going to spoil any minute."
Jacques Vivien acknowledged that, like his friend Paul Bocuse and many other leading chefs, his preference has always been for foods prepared much more simply than they are in the grand restaurants. "I like birds -- partridge, quail and pheasant -- then game meat, venison most of all, and shellfish. Smoked fish, too, but I've never had very good smoked salmon in this country. I go to New York to buy the kippers Zabar's imports from Scotland. One of my greatest food memories is sailing to Europe on a liner and for breakfast every morning having marvelous kippered herring and freshly baked rolls."
What about wine? he was asked. In answer he cited a passage from Gourmadise Au Singular , by the French entertainer and restaurateur Jean-Pierre Coffe. "I like those wines which do not demand a vocabulary to explain them," Coffe had written. "It is enough that you put them in your gullet and one knows that they are good."
"Primarily," said Jacques Vivien as he lit a new find from the Caribbean, "I am a cigar connoisseur. I would put that before seafood. I know nothing that can give so much satisfaction as a perfect Cuban cigar. A great dish is finished in 15 minutes, but a great cigar will last one and a half hours and get better and better."
He puffed a moment, nodded in approval and settled back to listen to music. Like the Chesapeake that evening, he was at peace.
Here are two recipes the Viviens prepare often. Do not attempt to make seviche with any but very fresh fish and do not let it marinate too long. The fish will become tough.
(4 appetizer servings) 1 pound perch fillets without skin, cut into 1 1/2-by-1-inch pieces 8 limes 1 teaspoon sea salt 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley 1/2 cup finely chopped onion Freshly ground pepper to taste
Squeeze the limes and pour the juice plus some of the pulp over the fish pieces in a glass or stainless steel bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. The marinade should cover but not drown the fish. Cover the bowl and refrigerate 3 to 4 hours, turning once or twice. Serve with bread and butter and pass a pepper mill at the table.
PERCH FILLETS WITH GREEN PEPPERCORNS AND LIME
(4 servings) 1 1/2 pounds perch fillet, the smaller the better Flour 7 tablespoons unsalted or clarified butter 1 tablespoon drained green peppercorns* 1/2 cup feshly squeezed lime juice 2 tablespoons chopped parsley Salt to taste
Wash fillets and pat them dry with paper towels. Lightly flour them while melting butter in a large skillet. When butter has stopped bubbling and turned golden, add fillets and cook about 2 minutes on each side over medium heat. Do not allow butter to burn. Remove to a serving platter and keep warm. Return skillet to heat and melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter. Add peppercorns, lime juice and parsley and heat until the liquid is bubbling briskly. Immediate pour over fish, add salt to taste and serve at once. *Available at specialty shops.