Long before opening hours, chef de cuisine Driss Zahidi chats on his cellphone. This Moroccan chef has made a name for himself in a corner of Northern Virginia -- McLean -- where he now heads the kitchen of the relatively new Bistro Vivant. A cousin of the nearby upscale Assaggi Osteria, this casual, French restaurant stresses the kind of approachable cuisine that appeals to the American palate: fresh ingredients, accessible dishes, full flavors.

As Zahidi himself says about the menu, "We are now making French food really nice. ... We do daily specials and try to get more local produce." That translates into classic French dishes with all-American ingredients. He points to the daily specials menu, noting that one of the day's features is chicken breast with a mustard sauce and leeks. "On Friday, if I can get something like figs, I will wrap them in ham and cook them with Roquefort," he said.

That Zahidi ended up as a chef is a story in and of itself. Raised in Casablanca, Morocco, Zahidi often helped his mother in the kitchen, explaining that as the oldest child, it was his duty to help him mother prepare family meals, from peeling potatoes and more. "That was really the beginning," he said of his cooking career. To bolster his skills, during his high school years, Zahidi worked in various local restaurants as a line cook.

If you go
Bistro Vivant
Where: 1394 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean
Info: 703-356-1700
Hours: Mon.-Fri., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Mon.-Thurs., dinner 4 to 10 p.m., Fri. and Sat. until 10:30 p.m., Sun. until 9:30 p.m.; Sat., Sun., lunch/brunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

He then attended the University of Science and Technology in the city of Mohammedia. Later, Zahidi moved to Compiegne, France, to further his education, and there, to earn his keep, he worked part-time in a nearby bistro. That job helped to confirm his goals: He discovered that his real passion lay with cooking and the culinary arts.

Although he never attended culinary school, Zahidi learned enough in his restaurant jobs under skilled chefs to enable him to become a talented chef himself. Besides, he has used his background in chemistry to understand how to merge flavors and cooking techniques found in the various kitchens in which he worked: Morocco, Spain, Italy, France and finally the United States.

When he moved to the United States, Zahidi worked in several restaurants, where he learned not only how to run the front of the house but also what kinds of food Americans like. That has helped him reach this position, which calls on both his talents and his creative energy. After all, he says, physics was really boring, and not nearly as much fun as cooking. "I like the interaction with people, like with cooking," he said. "With physics, you are in the lab by yourself."


Where do you go on vacations?

So far, Florida, Napa Valley and sometimes New York City.

What's in your fridge?

Vegetables, mainly vegetables, and baby food made from scratch. And milk.

What is your favorite cookbook?

I do read a lot. I have too many. "The French Laundry Cookbook." Every time I go back there, I always get inspiration.

What is your memorable dish?

Goat cheese-mash potato puree and roast boneless quail wrapped in bacon and topped with foie gras. The sauce was made with pinot noir and blackberry.

What do you do in your leisure time?

Whenever I have a couple of hours, I play with my kids.

Lamb with squash

Servings: 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

8 French-trimmed lamb loin chops (ask your local butcher to French-trim them for you)

1/4 medium red onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

Pinch of saffron

1 yellow squash, cut in half crosswise, then cut into 3 portions each

1 zucchini, cut in half crosswise, then cut into 3 portions each

1 cup sweet peas

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Salt and pepper (to taste)

1 1/2 cups water

Few sprigs of parsley for garnish

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large frying pan, and add the chops. Cook for 2-3 minutes on each side.

Add the onion, garlic and saffron. Stir for 1 minute, then add the squash, sweet peas and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the water and cover with a lid. Cook for about 12 minutes over medium heat.

Arrange chops in the middle of each plate and surround with squash. Spoon over top the sweet peas and drizzle with remaining pan juices. Garnish with parsley.