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 Shinners 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.