Building a life in love
By Ted Stanton

Lee Nguyen cleans the patio at the entrance of Paradise Inn B&B, located on the back side of his restaurant, Paradise Cafe. The inn has two suites on the third floor of what a former owner claimed to be "The World's Tallest Three Story Building."

Walking into Lil’s Coffee House, Lee Nguyen is showered by smiles, greetings and handshakes. He walks to the back of the restaurant to offer his condolences to a woman whose mother recently passed. They share an embrace before Lee takes a seat at the antique soda fountain counter in front and is met by several more smiles and hellos from friends and the café staff.

In a small town filled with families spanning generations, Lee has quickly become a cherished member of the community and the owner and operator of Paradise Café, an Asian fusion restaurant on Main Street.

“He just has it,” says Virginia Bardé. “He brings joy and gives joy.”

In 1978, at age 19, Lee boarded a small boat and fled his homeland of Vietnam. After spending two years in a refugee camp in Malaysia, he and four other young men were sponsored for immigration to the United States by Georgetown Baptist Church.

In many ways, Lee is a symbol of the American Dream. Lee had a humble beginning, harvesting tobacco leaves. Eventually he opened his first restaurant in Lexington in 1990. The same year he met Anita Jo Wells, or as Lee calls her, AJ, through a mutual friend. Ten years later, in March of 2000, they were married on a beach in Waikiki, Hawaii. The following year, Jo gave birth to their daughter, Kelly Jolee Nguyen.

After Kelly was born, the young family purchased the three-story Shinner Building, which dates to 1891. It took Lee two years to renovate it. The first two floors were for the restaurant and the top floor became their new home. It was a new beginning for the family.

But seven years later, AJ was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her wish, throughout the illness, was for time. “She often said, I want to live longer for my daughter,” recalls Lee, who was devastated by AJ's death on April 11, 2011.

“Paradise Café has kind of become a shrine to his wife,” says Travis Campbell, a firefighter and emergency medical technician for the Paris Fire Department.

On practically every wall in the restaurant there is at least one photo of AJ flashing a warm, loving smile. Lee even learned to make pho, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup and AJ’s favorite dish, so he could add it to the menu in her memory.

Despite his loss, Lee comes to life cooking and serving, full of smiles and laughter – just as AJ would have wanted, he says. It is a love he shares with anybody who enters Paradise, runs into him around town or stays in his bed and breakfast, which was formerly Lee, AJ and Kelly’s home above the restaurant.

On most nights, once Lee locks up for the night, he drives to Lexington where he now lives to be closer to Kelly, who is studying nursing at the University of Kentucky. But he still considers Paris home. It is where he and AJ raised Kelly. It is where they made many fond memories together. It is where he loved and continues to feel love from a community that has always supported him.

“Paris is love," he says. "If you don’t have love, you don’t have Paris.”

In an old aquarium on his building's second floor, Lee has placed a photo of Kelly on her first visit to Vietnam and a bouquet of artificial flowers his mother gave her. Beside them is a white, gray and brown-striped sack. On the bag, in Vietnamese, is written: "Miss and love you another thousand years."

Tucked away in the small sack is soil Lee collected on a visit to Vietnam. It is his wish that, when he passes, he be buried beside AJ in the Paris Cemetery and soil from the homeland he still so deeply loves be sprinkled into his grave. He wants to forever be with AJ and Vietnam – and still in love.

Lee brings restaurant supplies into the Paradise Cafe after a shopping trip to Lexington. The clock beside the doorway has been stopped to the time his wife, AJ, passed in 2011.

Part of Lee's daily routine is to regularly come out of the kitchen to greet people, many of whom are longtime customers. He does a little bit of everything at the cafe: cook, bus tables and take orders.

Lee offers a variety of Asian dishes at his cafe, such as Vietnamese pho, pad Thai, Singapore noodles and Szechuan beef. And there is a locally inspired dish: bourbon chicken.

While Lee (right) works the front of the restaurant, Mauricio Rodriguez (left) cleans up in the kitchen. Braydon Boardman is cooking.

Mirrors around the restaurant contain quotes and messages related to Lee's late wife.

Across the street at a public park featuring a miniature Eiffel Tower, Lee blows leaves and debris. He waters plants and cleans up along his section of Main Street because he believes strongly in doing his part for the community.

Lee gives a hug from Steve Lewis when he goes into Lil's Coffee House for lunch. Lee went over to offer his condolences to Lewis and his wife, Betty, because her mother had recently passed.

Lee drives to Paris Cemetery to visit AJ. He does that almost daily.

Lee leans on AJ's tombstone. On the back of the stone is something she would reply when people asked how she was doing: "Blessed and highly favored."