Ugly Apple Cafe

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Wasted…fruit. Wasted…fruit.

Today we know better than to judge our food on looks.

But not too long ago we were produce-shaming crooks.

Sorry. I apologize to Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf for defacing their music. I also apologize to Laurel Burleson, owner and chef of Ugly Apple Cafe, because this is an article about her Ugly Apple Cafe. But my lyrical offense has a point: the name Ugly Apple is meant to spark conversation aiming to educate patrons that food waste goes beyond just what we throw away after a meal. Even though a lot more of us are coming around to ignoring harmless deformities in our food, the message of waste is plenty relevant, and Ugly Apple is using it to make food that’s as mindful as it is tasty.

The extent of the food-waste problem really became clear to Laurel during her time working for a high-end restaurant in Madison and, later, a country club. “It seemed like such a shame,” says Laurel. “Why is stuff that’s perfectly good having to go in the trash?”

Inspired to do better, Laurel went to farmers’ markets in the area to educate herself on the issue at large. She quickly realized that farmers were having difficulty selling their fruits and vegetables when they came out looking kinda funny. “At the time, it seemed like this is an important niche that people aren’t noticing or seeing. … I came up with the concept of I want to use seconds, but I was thinking more tomatoes. At the end of tomato season, everyone has way too many tomatoes. Sometimes they’re cracked, but I can make soup. I can make sauce.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

The vision was to have a food cart downtown for breakfast, and she had the name Ugly Apple already picked out. “People around my age were like, ‘Great name. Cool.’ And people my parents’ ages were like, ‘Don’t call it that.’” Personally, I dig the name, but there was one large repercussion. Orchards started reaching out to Laurel, and soon she had tons of apples to work with. Fruit leather, jam, and some apple pastries became staples.

To go beyond her then-current apple knowledge, Laurel went to an orchard that produced a large variety of apples to find just the right one for a recipe she was working on. She was wandering around different crates of apples, asking questions to the farmer, when the farmer suggested an apple she’d overlooked: the golden russet. “I would not have grabbed them myself. I was assuming they were going to be mealy because they were a bit soft already. No. They were delicious and, somehow, a little crispy. It’s one of my favorite apples even though they are the ugliest apples.”

Perhaps the apple dish she’s most proud of only comes around once a year. “I make a really mean cider donut that I sell at Door Creek Orchard for their fall season.”

But enough about apples. Ugly Apple is so much more than its namesake. The food cart people are already familiar with actually tends to feature non-apple products. “You know you can get a biscuit, egg, and cheddar sandwich. You can get a muffin. The flavors might change, but you know what you’re getting.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

The menu fluctuates with what’s in season, and Laurel has learned that she has to keep herself in check creatively. “The last year they had the winter Farmers’ Market at the senior center downtown, which would’ve been 20…18? Time has no meaning anymore. I was resident chef of the breakfast there. Part of the challenge was using as much of the local stuff from the farmers there as possible. … There’d be those elements of let’s do something cool and fun and kind of crazy, but then it still has to make sense to the people who would be eating bacon and eggs.” Not everyone was interested in her pickled apples.

But the Gouda Barb, made from one of Laurel’s biscuits—that was a crowd pleaser. Egg sandwich with ham, gouda, and her own rhubarb bourbon jam. People were into that sweet and savory combination, which is one of Laurel’s favorite combinations as well.

Now a lot of her efforts are focused on informing people how good some fruits and vegetables are that they may have been dismissing. Laurel speaks from experience. “I grew up with everything from a box. … It’s one thing that really inspired me to start playing with food.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

A perfect example of her own branching out would be when she was working at a restaurant in college and the chef would regularly bring in things from his garden. “I was like, oh! This is what tomatoes taste like. … I wonder how many more people would like vegetables if they got a chance to try them at their best. Like roasted cauliflower—anything in that cruciferous family, mustard family. If you get some color on it, it’s a whole different animal.”

To further encourage customers to try new foods, she readily shares her recipes, none of which are precious or sacred to her. “Just go make it. It’s time and practice to know how to get it to where it needs to be, but there’s not a special chemical I’m throwing on it or a special oven.” It’s good food, and the heart of most food lies in its sharing and community. Why not work to make the whole experience stretch farther?

Ugly Apple Cafe is looking forward to continuing with their presence at the Farmers’ Market this spring. You can also look for their soup now through Soup’s On!, but there’s something else currently in the works: Laurel is working with Tyson Foshay of Madison Sourdough to start a brick-and-mortar location. The location isn’t locked in, and they’re still figuring out some of the logistics, but come this May, they’re hoping to be moved in.

Another food venue providing sustainable and local food that tastes delicious. If only every city could be so lucky.

Follow Ugly Apple Cafe for pop-up events this winter @uglyapplecafe on Facebook and Instagram.

Kyle Jacobson is the lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Ugly Apple Cafe

(608) 352-8459